Planning for a City: A Buddhist Perspective
by Fung Ling
I was born and grew up in Hong Kong and have practiced Buddhism here all my life. One of the cornerstones of Buddhist philosophy is its perspective on the interrelationship between all things. At school, studying the relationships between the animals, people and their living environment in my ecology lessons excited my interest and led to me studying town planning at university. I currently work as a town planner for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government, where I contemplate these relationships on a daily basis and attempt to ensure that they can be harmonized.
Anyone who has flown into Hong Kong and seen the many tightly packed high-rise buildings that tower into the sky will have a graphic sense of some of the challenges involved for city planning in this densely populated environment. Hong Kong is home to 7 million people, but because of the mountainous geography of the islands, only 24 percent of the 1,100-square-kilometer land surface has been built on.
A Balanced Approach
Buddhist philosophy, based on respect and concern for all life, accords closely with the concept of sustainable development. It offers me a powerful perspective from which to consider the harmonious development of the city or of a particular community within the city. Sustainable development involves balancing social, environmental and economic concerns. It means creating social harmony and equality, protecting the environment and ensuring economic prosperity. Buddhism itself is essentially about bringing all these elements of life into balance, whether on a personal level or a community or global level.
City planners must ensure that sufficient land can be made available for commercial and industrial growth and that the city's economy can prosper. Buddhism, though, teaches that all life and phenomena function according to a universal principle or law of life and that human prosperity ultimately comes from acting in accordance with this principle. What this means fundamentally is that we cannot build happiness or prosperity upon the destruction or disregard of other life, including the natural environment, for ultimately we ourselves will suffer the consequences.
Buddhism also teaches the importance of dialogue in ensuring mutual understanding and social harmony. In my work context this means seeking the input of the public and ensuring that their opinions are heard during the planning process.
Although achieving a balance between social, economic and environmental concerns is not easy, I see greater efforts being made to do so.
The negotiations around Sham Chung, an area home to mangroves, fung shui woodland and rare species of freshwater fish, are a case in point. In the late 1990s, the action taken by a developer to change the area from abandoned agricultural use to a turf area attracted the concern of green groups. A statutory town plan announced in 2006 was intended to ensure that the natural ecology be preserved. It establishes procedures for both environmental groups and those representing commercial interests to voice their objections against land use zonings and to engage in dialogue at Town Planning Board meetings. Rezoning proposals have to demonstrate convincingly that any development will not have adverse environmental and ecological impact on the area.
In this way we are attempting to ensure that the scarce developable land that is available for the city's growth can be utilized in the wisest manner and in a way beneficial to all concerned.
My practice in the SGI has instilled in me the value of respecting all life. In my work it reminds me to strive to provide a good and healthy living and working environment for the people of Hong Kong and to avoid causing harm to the natural environment.
[Courtesy, April 2007 SGI Quarterly]