What can we learn from our colleagues in Hong Kong and China?

Following a visit to Hong Kong and China in August, CIH President Geraldine Howley blogs about her experiences and how we can take inspiration from housing in other countries.

During my time as Vice-President and President of CIH, I have been lucky to visit many of you across the UK as well as internationally. In August I was travelling to catch up with my daughters and took the chance to visit our colleagues in Hong Kong.

I was again warmly welcomed by Wong Hin Nang, general manager of CIH’s Asian Pacific branch, Linda Wong and CIH executive committee members – their gracious hospitality was as wonderful as ever.  There’s a lot to learn from our colleagues in Hong Kong, particularly around innovation and creativity in high density living – read my blog from my previous visit. In a whirlwind tour I met so many fantastic people.

My first port of call was visiting the new Asian Pacific branch to meet staff and volunteers from CIH – they now share an office with the Hong Kong Institute of Housing and the Hong Kong Association of Property Management Companies. We were also joined by professors from both Hong Kong University and Beijing University. I felt incredibly lucky to share knowledge, experience and best practice with an extensive and varied group of contemporaries from Hong Kong and China. Membership in the Asian Pacific region is now 2,770 with over 800 studying members – it’s great to see the expanse of our professional body.

While in Hong Kong, Linda Wong and Wong Hin Nang accompanied me as I visited the Heritage of Mei Ho House Museum, once part of Shek Kip Mei housing estate, Hong Kong’s oldest public housing complex. It shows public housing history from the 1950s through to the 1970s, through a mixture of donated exhibits and first-hand anecdotes from former residents. The museum features the real units of the 1950s, which occasionally saw over ten people cramped into a 120sq ft space with bunk beds and cocklofts. This is in stark contrast with the sleek, well-appointed apartments of today – you can see that housing has come a long way!

The next day I was off to China, accompanied by CIH members including the President of the Hong Kong Institute of Housing, Kwong Ming Paul. My Hong Kong colleagues had to wait some time for me to get through customs, but eventually we met up with my lovely translator, Dobby, and government officials from the bureau of housing and construction.  I caught the commuter train to Shenzhen – immediately north of Hong Kong – which is a rapidly growing city with a population of over 12 million people. That’s a third bigger than London!

However, unlike most traditional cities, Shenzhen was a small market town until 1979, when China decided to explore market-based economics, deciding that Shenzhen would become a ‘special economic zone’ that would be opened up to foreign investment.

This change in policy rapidly turned a village into the massive city of Shenzhen. During the 1990s and 2000s it was one of the fastest growing cities in the world, due in no small part to investment – mainly in manufacturing but more recently into the service industries. Interestingly, local electronic firm Pace also use Shenzhen as their manufacturing base too – alongside Apple and a variety of leading technological firms.  What I found most fascinating about this large-density planning was the opportunity to start with an almost completely blank slate!

Shenzhen is a fascinating piece of urban planning.  The entire city was plotted out and built within the last few decades, with large parks and ‘green belts’ of urban trees. It’s high-density urban living, inspired in no small part by the city’s Hong Kong neighbours, with multi-storey commercial districts and a web of underground rail networks connecting the city. Interestingly, given the well-reported problems with air pollution in other Chinese cities, the city was laid out not just to accommodate vehicles but also with dedicated bus lanes and bike paths, as well as pedestrian tunnels and broad overpasses to bridge the rivers of traffic. They have invested heavily in their public transport system (the metro), with more than 130 stations on over 100 miles of tracks. There are plans to double that by 2016. The city was designed for growth and growth is indeed planned! This fantastic vision of the future really makes use of space saving innovation. I really look forward to seeing how Qianhai develops in the future, and hopefully visiting the finished product.

I was invited to the Qianhai Enterprise Dream Park to look at the plans for Qianhai, a 15 square km area of Shenzhen which is currently being developed and is planned to be completed by 2020. While there I spent time with Yi Cheng Wu, senior regional director, and we discussed the rapidly developing plan China has for housing. They are keen to learn from UK housing policy, and are looking to increase CIH membership and promote professional standards. We can see from the increasing number of studying members in the Asian Pacific region that demand for CIH professional accreditation is as highly valued in China as it is here – wouldn’t it be amazing to get the graduate GEM programme started over there?

Many thanks again to everyone for the warm welcome and fantastic hospitality. It was encouraging to note the interest in the CIH from officials I met in China and I look forward to hopefully progressing membership here.