Designing Resilience – 2 Architectural Students’ Take on Coastal Threats

By Fergal Tse, Oscar Wong 24 September, 2021

Youth can play a big part in building a climate ready & resilient HK, HKU's Tse & Wong reflect

Although students learn about adaptation strategies at school, SLR & storm surges are not thoroughly discussed; yet Mangkhut has made many rethink HK's coastal protection
The site analysis of Victoria Harbour showed that both sides are clustered with assets & need more protection yet locals are unaware of the economic risks of climate change
Fortunately, students are proactive in the fight against climate change & are re-evaluating their own carbon footprints, yet govt needs to do more to tap their potential
Fergal Tse
Author: Fergal Tse
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Fergal is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong pursuing a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences in Design+ and Architecture. His interests lie in design thinking and innovation between the realms of architecture and design, within the context of Hong Kong’s rapid urbanization and finding the balance between urban and rural development. Through joining CWR, Fergal hopes to explore the role of design and architecture when combating climate change and rising coastal threats for the present day and the future, and reexamine how current and potential adaptation and intervention strategies will impact the status quo of Hong Kong and the APAC region.
Read more from Fergal Tse →
Oscar Wong
Author: Oscar Wong
Oscar was born and raised in Hong Kong and is currently studying his Bachelor of Arts and Sciences under the Faculty of Architecture majoring in Design+ and Architectural Studies at The University of Hong Kong. Oscar is interested in how architecture and the built environment can be used to propagate a way of living that is aligned with sustainable development goals which are based on environmental, social and economic factors. Oscar decided to join the CWR team to question the current state of the built environment within the APAC region and how it could be reimagined through the tools of architecture and design to adapt to sea level rise caused by climate change.
Read more from Oscar Wong →

To build a climate-ready & resilient HK, it is key to include the younger generation in the conversation as they are the ones who will bear the brunt of climate impacts. CWR is often invited to several universities to give talks and engage with students to raise awareness.

Recently, we were invited by the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong to participate in a project where two students, Fergal Tse & Oscar Wong, were tasked to answer our question “How can Victoria Harbour be protected from rising coastal threats?”. After informing them of the level of coastal threats that HK faces, they were equally stunned and motivated to do something to protect HK. So, following the completion of their university project, they decided to work with us as interns and came up with an innovative design idea of how HK can protect Victoria Harbour.

We sat down with them to understand what local youths think about climate change and how their projects with CWR changed their perspective. 

CWR: Great work done with your design research project! To provide a bit of background, could you introduce yourselves and share what made you two decide to collaborate with us for your Research for Innovation course? Did you have any expectations going into it?

Fergal Tse (FT): Born and raised in Hong Kong, I’ve always heard about the state of the city from two drastically different perspectives – the rapid urbanisation in Hong Kong improving the quality of life for all of us versus the importance of sustainable development by striking a balance between urbanisation and sustainability. This opposing dynamic has had more attention lately as more people are worried that unchecked urbanisation and economic growth will lead to more severe climate impacts.

Can we enhance the sustainability of an urbanised city with more construction using a design thinking approach?

However, as an undergraduate student majoring in Design and Architecture at the University of Hong Kong, I have always wondered whether this must be a dichotomy – can we enhance the sustainability of an urbanised city with more construction using a design thinking approach? This is why I was particularly intrigued when I saw CWR’s research statement: “How can Victoria Harbour be protected from rising coastal threats?” as one of the design challenges I could choose to work on for the course’s research project.

After evaluating all the design challenges and understanding more about what CWR does by reading up your “Climate Change – Never Too Late To Start” and “The CWR Survival Guides To Avoiding Atlantis”, I found that CWR’s research interests and ambitions aligned with mine. Therefore, I decided to choose CWR as our client to take our first stab into design research on Victoria Harbour.

Oscar Wong (OW): Personally, I gravitated towards CWR’s unconventional perspective of viewing climate change from an economic angle. I felt the economic and financial impact of climate change was an overlooked perspective compared to environmental and social factors which are promoted much more within different industries. Therefore I was intrigued to choose CWR as my client in order to understand what role economics and finance can play in mitigating climate impacts, in particular rising sea levels.

I want to explore how to craft unconventional projects with strong statistical support within the built environment

Another reason that led me to choose CWR as our client is its strategy to employ statistics to back up research to act as a driver for bold and innovative change. By embedding climate water risks into business and finance through data-driven research, it offers a strong case for investors and governments to invest in bold and innovative climate adaptation ideas. This approach aligns with what I want to explore, which is crafting more unconventional projects with strong statistical support within the built environment.

Going into the project, I knew I had big shoes to fill as I will learn more about the financial impacts of climate change as well as add my perspective of design to CWR’s work.

CWR: What did you know about climate change and sea level rise before collaborating with us?

FT & OW: The majority of our climate knowledge comes from two sources: taught by teachers during classes (both in secondary school and university) and acquired from current affairs and the news.

Being exposed to documentaries such as “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore and going to field trips in varying urban and rural areas in Hong Kong during science and geography classes in secondary school has educated us of the implications of our actions since the industrial era, and the physical damages it has caused to the natural environment.

Conversations on sea level rise & storm surges weren’t comprehensively discussed in classes…

Whilst climate strategies ranging from carbon taxes to renewable sources, to physical barriers, to mangroves have been briefly discussed as potential strategies to prevent further long term damage to the environment, conversations on technical climate change terms such as sea level rise (SLR) and storm surges weren’t often comprehensively discussed in classes.

…yet Mangkhut stirred up conversations among our peers that HK does not have enough preventative measures in place

However, events such as the aftermath of Typhoon Mangkut in 2018 causing extensive damage that disrupted our daily lives have stirred up conversations among our peers that Hong Kong does not have enough preventative measures to protect our city, especially near the harbour and in low lying land. Events like Mangkut often motivated students to take the initiative to research more on climate change, or host outings with other classmates or friends to clean up the fallen trees off the roads after the typhoon.

CWR: Can you walk us through how you design the methodology to answer the research question? How did you two go about organizing such a big project? Also, were there any difficulties along the way?

FT & OW: Our research was separated into two parts, which consisted of 1) secondary research through journals and reports to build knowledge capacity of climate change and SLR and 2) primary research through observational field trips and focus groups, which allowed us to put prior knowledge into the context of Hong Kong and begin curating potential design solutions for Hong Kong in 2100.

However, coming up with the methodology for the large scale design problem proved to be a challenge. How were we able to provide meaningful knowledge and research for an organisation that already has extensive knowledge and reputation on climate change and the water crisis in Asia? How might we engage local audiences on the topic of climate change where interests and awareness are generally low?

We eventually overcame these challenges by first researching adaptation strategies from progressive countries outside of Asia, then re-contextualising these case studies into Hong King’s harbour. Eventually, we were able to bring the best of both worlds and generate new and meaningful knowledge for CWR.

CWR: What are the major findings of your project?

FT & OW: Our three key takeaways for this project originated from our three research methodologies –

1. To understand how important Victoria Harbour is, we performed a site analysis that studied utilities of space, land use, water domain, water use, and land transportation routes (as per the map below).

We discovered that both sides of Victoria Harbour are clustered with assets and infrastructure ranging from residential and commercial properties to transport and industrial sites. All of these carry high economic values so it is paramount that we protect the harbour from SLR with sufficient preventative measures. This exercise also underlines the most valuable and vulnerable areas of the harbour that needs the most protection.

2. We also conduct a comparative study to examine and learn from policies and adaptation strategies employed by other countries. One interesting finding is that in some European countries, their shore lengths (i.e. more vulnerable areas to SLR) has a direct correlation with the RCP scenario used and level of policy aggressiveness. Simply put – the longer the shoreline a country has, the higher sea level a country will protect against. 

3. The focus group conducted enabled us to learn the point of view of the general public and to gain insight into the priorities of environmental, social and economic priorities they have. In addition, it was an opportunity to start brainstorming what interventions could look like.

We observed that the public has high consideration for environmental sustainability with social sustainability following after, while there was only slight interest in economic sustainability. Yet CWR’s research clearly shows that the economic and financial risks of climate change are huge.

These observations offered insights on what an intervention can do to educate the public, for instance allowing citizens to understand the concept of waternomics or protecting economic assets. The brainstorm and rapid prototyping session gave solid foundations to formulate priorities the intervention project should have and give ideas of how the intervention might look like in the future.

The public has slight interest in economic stability yet climate change has huge economic risks…

…intenvention can be done to educate the public to protect economic assets

CWR: Do you believe that people your age in Hong Kong would have similar thoughts on climate change? What actions should be taken to promote climate education in HK?

FT & OW: Based on our focus group conducted on a group of young adults in their early twenties, we found out that they also understand the dire consequences of climate change. Whilst many participants were able to identify the effects of climate change and strategies that can be used to delay the inevitable effects of climate change, many were unaware of the current efforts employed by corporations and governments to employ new adaption methods, policies, and new technologies to prevent the implications of sea level rise.

Young adults are proactive in the fight against climate change…

However, young adults are proactive in the fight against climate change as they constantly re-evaluate their own carbon footprint and take action one small step at a time. Climate education in the local education system has been reflected in their awareness and advocacy as seen in social media and in protests led by student groups around Hong Kong.

…& the govt should tap the youth’s potential to generate new climate solutions

However, although our focus group showed a positive result, we cannot say it represents the majority of youth in HK until we conduct a larger-scale study. Nevertheless, given the magnitude of the potential risks that HK faces, we believe more resources should be devoted to cultivating climate awareness among the youth. The government should also tailor policies that can tap the youth’s potential to generate new climate solutions.

CWR: After taking on this project, have you changed your career plans? How are you going to move forward with your future endeavours?

OW: Through the hurdles of the research project, I have definitely steered my career in a different direction than previously expected. I have always been looking forward to being involved in projects around re-thinking Hong Kong’s built environment to adapt to the persistent issues that climate change would cause, but now I have found considering the economic perspective would make future designs more likely to be a reality.

I would like to do similar research projects which would allow designers to convince future investors by providing statistics, infographics and presentations. Moreover, I would like to look into how to retrofit the current urban landscape as that could be another option to adapt to further issues.

FT: Throughout this journey exploring water risks and climate change, I have definitely considered realigning my career choices against climate change issues and upholding our responsibility as citizens to prevent further damage done to our infrastructure and our assets in the future.

I hope to further explore the relationship between our built environment and the future, and how design thinking can be used as a driver for interdisciplinary innovation. Furthermore, I would like to be involved in more projects where research takes on a predominant role and acts as a solid foundation for informing design decisions and further design development such that there is a balance between urbanisation and sustainability.

We will be running a series of Re-IMAGINE HK labs to brainstorm outcomes so email us if you would like to participate!


Check out how Hong Kong could look like by 2100 and 2150 if left unprotected…

Re-IMAGINE HK                                     2100 Coastal Threat Snapshot    Re-IMAGINE HK                                     2150 Coastal Threat Snapshot 

Further Reading

More on Latest
  • 2021 World Water Week: 3 Key Action Takeaways to Build Resilience Faster – 2021 World Water Week gives 3 important action takeaways for us to charge forward & build resilience faster – CWR’s Soomin Park breaks them down
  • Sponge City Is Transforming Urban Flood Management – Sponge city was launched to combat urban flood risks yet public has doubts over its effectiveness. What does the Chinese govt do to promote the policy? What role does social media play? Dr. Faith Chan, Dr. Dimple Thadani & Lei Li break it down
  • Not Just a Drop in the Ocean – Global water guru Professor Asit Biswas & Singapore PUB’s CEO Peter Joohee Ng share how the country is setting the example on climate change & water mgmt by formulating long-term plans despite only accounting for 0.1% of global GHG emissions
  • 3 First Steps To Protect HK From Rising Seas – The IPCC AR6 warnings on rising seas bring bad tidings for Hong Kong. If you are 20 & younger, HK could become the new Atlantis in your lifetime unless we take action now. See 3D maps of areas submerged and get on top of what you need to do to survive, adapt & thrive
  • Hong Kong Is Tracking Worst-Case Scenario Impacts – 8 Reasons To Act Now – With this summer of rising climate risks, don’t get caught out. CWR’s Chien Tat Low & Debra Tan run through 8 reasons why Hong Kong must act now to get on top of advancing climate threats – from hot weather, strong winds to flash floods – be prepared!