The Politics of Urban Renewal in Macau

Urban renewal is significant for any city, especially Macau where many very old buildings exist interestingly side by side with new buildings. Given the predictable increase in typhoon attacks on the city and the nearby regions in the coming years, it is imperative for the Macau SAR Government to accelerate the process of urban renewal, because some old buildings will likely run the risk of being undermined by typhoons, facing possible fire hazards, collapse, and endangering the lives of citizens and tourists. Fortunately, this has so far not taken place in Macau, unlike Hong Kong where the occasional collapse of any old building – partly due to the lack of maintenance and partly because of the decline in concrete strength – could lead to sudden public outcry in the past.

In fact, the Macau government since 2016 has been trying to address the issue of urban renewal, but more efficient and diligent work will have to be done. Urban renewal has to be accelerated by the departing Chui Sai On administration and it should be one of the top priorities of the new Chief Executive.

In early April 2019, the Urban Renovation Company was set up with the responsibility of promoting urban renewal in Macau. It will submit its annual business operation report to the government that owns 96 percent of the shares of the company. Moreover, the Urban Renewal Committee, which was set up in March 2016, is going to exist alongside with the Company. The Committee has 21 unofficial members, with at least half of which coming from the business sector. The Company has its secretary, a board of directors and a supervisory board. The government is going to send its representatives to the Company’s board of directors in order to oversee the latter’s work. In early April, the Macau Executive Council approved MOP$100 million as the initial capital that is invested in the Company’s work.

The challenges for the Committee and the Company are to delineate their interrelationships more clearly and to ensure how they will co-ordinate among themselves so that the process of urban renewal will be accelerated. A few local critics remarked that, starting from 2005, Macao’s urban renewal proceeded slowly with the unnecessary delay on the part of the administration. Objectively speaking, the establishment of the Committee in 2016 and the birth of the Company in 2019 marked a new beginning in the history of urban renewal in Macau.

In August 2018, the government published a document to consult public opinion on a two-pronged strategy to address the question of urban renewal. The document proposed the need for (1) housing units for temporary shelter for residents who are affected by urban renewal but who will be subsidized by the government, and (2) housing units for buying by those residents who wish to own their homes. In December 2018, the Legislative Assembly approved the proposal, opening the door to the inception of a new urban renewal policy.

However, there are tremendous challenges to this new urban renewal policy. First and foremost, the government has to conduct a large-scale and comprehensive survey of which district and what specific types of buildings will enjoy the top priority of urban renewal. Specifically, prioritization and planning will have to be carried out not only as soon as possible but also efficiently. Second, the Urban Renovation Company will need to implement the plan in stages after the process of prioritization, with sufficient amount of regular funding support from the government so that the plan will be carried out without any implementation gap. Indeed, this is easier said than done. Third, the two types of housing units – temporary shelter and those units for buyers to change their ownership – will have to be built in different districts on time so that, when residents will be evacuated from their demolished and old homes, they will be able to move into their temporary or permanent homes. This means that the construction of new housing units and the demolition of the old buildings will have to be timed perfectly. Any sluggishness on the part of the government and the land developers will have the consequence of arousing public anger and complaints.

In other words, the government will have to effectively manage the expectations from the residents, whose homes will be demolished and who expect to move into their new homes. In the case of Hong Kong, urban renewal is filled with complexities. Some Hong Kong residents would like to move into new homes of the same district where they live, but the result is often the lack of new homes offered in their same district. Moreover, some residents whose homes are demolished and who are compensated monetarily by the Urban Renewal Authority may not have sufficient money to buy and own their new homes whose prices are relatively higher. Hence, ideals are often different from the reality. Macau must learn from the lessons from Hong Kong’s urban renewal process and it must avoid the problem of triggering an expectation gap from the affected citizens.

Last but not least, given the continuous nature of urban renewal, its process will be a long one straddling different administration led by different Chief Executives in Macau in the long run. As such, the continuity of the urban renewal policy, its adaptability to the rapidly changing circumstances, and regular policy assessment and adjustment will constitute the crucial factors shaping the success of urban renewal in the city.

*Political commentator, regular contributor to MNA