As one of the world’s most famous and innovative financial centres, Hong Kong has long been the top dog of Asia when it comes to global trade, with a history stretching back to the colonial period as one of Britain’s most successful outposts.
Fast-forward to today, and its success is still very much intact; in 2019, Hong Kong was the world's 8th largest trading entity in goods, with the value of total merchandise trade reaching HK$8,404.1 billion (US$1,072.5 billion). According to Forbes, around 9,000 foreign companies are registered in here, a clear indicator of business confidence in this financial capital.
Hong Kong’s Central Business District (CBD) has historically been located on the northern coast of the island around Victoria Harbour, one of the world’s busiest ports. However, limitations on space and the rising cost of living exert considerable pressure, making it more challenging to compete with up-and-coming international cities. After all, Hong Kong is one of the most populated places on earth - its population density in 2018 was 6,641.20 people per square kilometre - and properties on the island are expensive. Homes, shops and industrial units reached their highest monthly level in two years as of April 2021, as COVID-19 cases decrease and demand bounced back from the recession.
Given this fast-moving context, Hong Kong depends on a continuously improving and responsive approach to urban planning. Its CBDs are increasingly decentralising, with a number springing up in the east and west, as well as on the mainland.
Kowloon’s International Commerce Centre (ICC), and the newest CBD that is growing around it, has capitalised on Hong Kong’s mature transportation network, as well as the advantages of greater green field land mass, to create a contemporary development that is helping to ensure Hong Kong remains among the top financial centres of the world.
Part of the West Kowloon reclamation project known as Union Square, the ICC is a major component of regenerating the area and spurring a new commercial hub for Hong Kong. The tallest building in Hong Kong, the ICC is a gleaming 118-storey skyscraper overlooking Victoria Harbour, with an impressive 360-degree view. Its location is strategic; both from a logistical perspective and an aesthetic one. Marking the continuity of Hong Kong’s proud history as a world leader in trade and finance, the ICC visually ‘speaks’ to the historic CBD which lies just across the harbour.
The ICC boasts anchor tenants from among the world’s most prestigious financial institutions, such as Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley. It also houses the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the Elements shopping mall, an observation deck on the 100th floor, a number of five-star restaurants and, at the very top, sits the world’s highest swimming pool and bar. The area surrounding the ICC is a busy commercial hub filled with a good mix of multinational companies and SMEs.
The ICC and the Union Square project truly embody the spirit of a transport-oriented development (TOD); “a mixed-use community that encourages people to live near transit services and to decrease their dependence on driving,” as defined by architect Peter Calthorpe, who coined the concept. A successful TOD allows for the seamless transportation of people and goods from one place to another, boosts the economy and increases the diversity and attractiveness of a city.
This is very much in evidence at the ICC, which seamlessly integrates various transportation services: underneath is a bus terminal, a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station, a High-Speed Rail connection and an Airport Express stop, which means a mere 25-minute commute to the international airport. This is a vital resource in a city with one of the world’s busiest ports and airports, one of the highest usage of public transport, as well as limited space for motor vehicles.
Hong Kong’s success in implementing TODs – benchmarked by the World Bank as among the top 3 in the world - can be measured through the concept of ‘density’, or the accumulation of opportunities in a given area. One example is building density, as found in the southern part of Kowloon, where the ICC is. High-density developments are less dependent on cars, support a comprehensive public transport service and encourage a vibrant lifestyle.
Diversity density is also important to a flourishing TOD. According to a 2015 study, the availability of a wide range of amenities and activities makes a place more attractive to a wider range of people, creating a more balanced flow throughout the day. This is certainly true for the new CBD around the ICC in Kowloon.
The Culture Trip describes Kowloon as being “the more authentic and edgier side of Hong Kong. It may be the most densely populated area, but with this comes a curious mix of old and new culture, and a diverse host of attractions to explore.”
A walk through the ICC’s surrounding district will reveal shiny shopping malls boasting the world’s biggest designer brands as well as impressive international chains of hotels and banks. Taxis whizz through the traffic while smart-looking professionals scurry down busy streets. Attractions range from hawkers peddling authentic street food to temples, parks and museums all the way to Michelin-star restaurants and contemporary art collectives.
ARUP’s Gaurav Ahuja says that Kowloon and its surrounding areas encompass “hotels, office towers, a high-end retail mall, food and beverage venues and apartments that can house up to 20,000 residents.”
“Kowloon is indeed a mini-city in itself,” he concluded.