OPINION – At our door

Macau is a small and dense – at times too dense – urban space. Limited land availability was long ago recognized as a significant impediment to economic growth. Such perception is at the root of many land reclamation projects developed in the last hundred years. As a result, the city has more than doubled and it keeps growing.

By José I. Duarte | Economist, Macau Business Senior Analyst

The growth of the gambling and tourism sectors after 2004 brought riches and jobs, as well as less desirable effects. A rising population and an increasing vehicle density followed the growing number of visitors. They severely impacted the local society and economy, stressing the urban fabric on several fronts: traffic congestion, noise, waste disposal and treatment, and air pollution. 

Within this context it was (and still is) surprising that the city still has no formal tools to guide its urban development. Problems have piled up, with solutions set mostly without a recognizable frame of reference. Seen from the outside, those solutions often appeared somewhat haphazard, devised for problems that were not wholly defined or whose causes were not well identified.  

Some examples will help clarify the statements above. New land reclamation projects were approved before we had precise ideas about what and when they were needed. The size of public infrastructures, such as the Taipa ferry terminal or the landing of the HZM Bridge for instance, is wildly at odds with the actual needs and usage. The metro system started operating, but nobody seems able to tell how it will improve mobility for the vast majority of its potential users, if it will at all. Construction began in places where more restraint was possibly warranted, such as around the Guia Hill or in the Seac Pai Van area.  

Therefore, the fact that the draft for an urban planning law was recently the subject of a public discussion is cause for joy. Although we must note that the process is already behind schedule, we will hopefully have an urban development law sometime in the not too distant future. 

That said, there are causes for concern. First, the language used in the consultation document is often formulaic and vague, when not obscure. As it frequently happens with this type of ‘literature,’ there are too many adjectives. A more substantive approach would be welcome.  

The vagueness, coupled with the lateness and slowness of the process, may suggest that the practical effects may be limited in more than one sense. More than framing the future, the law may not, in practice, do much more than confirm or certify de facto what happened before – or what will happen until it comes into effect. Once approved, it may provide little scope for correcting or mitigating past excesses, where they exist, or preventing future ones.  

A plan like this should be solidly anchored on what there is, the facts on the ground. That is the starting point for any actions trying to achieve whatever objectives are or will be set. A clear assessment of the current situation, a diagnostic of the current problems and its causes may exist, but it is not obvious.  

Where the proposal is more precise, namely when involving zoning criteria or changes in the functional configuration of some urban areas, it lacks references to the underpinning methodology or principles. It is unclear which preliminary studies or analyses exist, which alternatives they considered, and whether the related reports are available to either experts or the lay public.  

It is difficult to productively discuss a plan when its assumptions and decision criteria are not defined. In sum, it is a good thing that the conversation started, but it has a long way to go before it becomes a substantive one.