Great Harbor Matchups: Mountain Harbors of the Future

I've always wondered why cities of the future always look so great, yet somehow unbelievable. Whether it's in a science fiction film, or an architect's vision of a city, cities of the future often look too good to be true. But some cities actually look futuristic. Dubai's skyline is full of fanciful looking buildings for example, but when you get onto the ground, it's not nearly as lively as you might like (or so I've heard).

Hong Kong Light Show, Photo: Rates To Go
Two cities actually almost have it all. Vancouver and Hong Kong, have very modern skylines. They've even got amazingly huge mountains as their backdrop, big harbors, and lively street life. In the previous Great Harbor Matchup, we looked at the two "Golden" cities, San Francisco and Istanbul. In this installment we take a look at two "futuristic"mountain harbor" cities: Vancouver and Hong Kong. 

Vancouver was actually used as the template for the fictitious Caprica City in the television shows Battlestar Galactica, and Caprica. The image below even shows mountains in the background. Vancouver was even used as a city template for a Franklin Templeton investment bank tv commercial showing a fictitious city with the great skyscrapers of the world.
Caprica City. Image: Battlestar Galactica Wiki
I'm not familiar with any films using Hong Kong as a fictitious future city. However, with it's unique skyline, mountain backdrops, varied architecture and amazing light shows, it already looks like a city of the future. 
Vancouver and Hong Kong were also selected as a matchup for their cultural/economic connection to each other, not to mention being former colonies of the British Empire.

One overarching element that makes the cities different is their size. As we will see, Hong Kong is a very large city that is incredibly dense, while Vancouver is a medium large city with a dense downtown.

Full disclosure: I've visited Vancouver several times, but never visited Hong Kong. I hope to visit Hong Kong sometime soon.

View of Hong Kong Harbor from Victoria Peak, Photo:

Downtown Vancouver from False Creek. Photo: Everett Potter
Geography Comparison
Although the two harbors both have large mountains looming over them, they have few other significant similarities.
  • Protected Harbors: Burrard Inlet in Vancouver and Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong provide naturally deep and protected harbors, both accessed from adjacent seas: Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia) and South China Sea, respectively
    • The term Salish Sea is quite new, dating officially from 2010 when both Canadian and American geographical boards adopted the name. The sea comprises of the Strait of Gerogia, Pugeot Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca. Think of it this way, imagine if the Mediterranean Sea was only known as a group of a dozen seas (Aegean, Ionian, Adriatic, Tyrrhenian, Cilician, Libyan, Crete, Ligurian, Belearic, Alboran Seas, etc.) but had no unifying name. Well that's the case with the Salish Sea. A combination of a national border and somewhat unique geography likely prevented a unified name. Thanks to geographic societies and professionals we now have a unified name. Quick question: Is the Johnstone Strait part of the Salish Sea? Should it be included?
  • Delta Adjacent: Neither city is situated along a major river, unlike many great harbor cities (e.g. Shanghai, New York City, St. Petersburg). However, both are very close to major river deltas. Vancouver is 6 miles from the Fraser River delta, and Hong Kong is about 30 miles from the Pearl River Delta (Zhujiang Delta).

  • Rain Forests: Vancouver is within a temperate rain forest climate (1,588 mm/year), while Hong Kong has a humid subtropic climate, more similar to a classic rain forest (2,398 mm/year).
  • Topography: Both cities are bounded on at least one side by significant mountains. 
    • Vancouver is only bounded to the north by the North Shore Mountains, which rise from the sea to almost 5,700 feet. Some of the high peaks visible from Vancouver include: The Lions (1,654m), Cathedral Mountain (1,737m), Grouse Mountain (1,231m)
    • In contrast, Hong Kong is rugged throughout its territory that spans dozens of islands and a large peninsula. In fact much of the urban area clings to the limited flatter or less sloped mountain sides. Hong Kong Island's famous high peak, Victoria Peak, rises 1,881 ft (573 m), while the region's highest peak is Tai Mo Shan (957m, 3,140ft).
    • The Bottom Line: when you arrive in either city, you will be struck by the mountains immediately. They hover over both cities. Vancouver gets kudos for a higher mountain skyline with 1,200+ mountains. That's 1 1/2 Burj Khalifas or 3 Empire State Buildings. Hong Kong gets kudos for having mountains everywhere with high rises flanking steep slopes up the mountains.
Downtown Vancouver from False Creek,
As you can see in the maps below, Hong Kong's 7 million residents are packed into narrow bands of urbanity. Meanwhile, Vancouver is more spread out like most North American cities. It's density is only in its Downtown peninsula area and in high rise districts surrounding its rail stations. The two maps below are at the same scale. 

Hong Kong


Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong Island

Note that Victoria Harbor is accessible to ships from the east and west. The harbor, unlike most river or bay oriented harbors can be reached from the sea in two directions. Think of it as having two entrances, while most harbors only have one entrance. The Hong Kong region is very close to other major ports and urban centers, all part of the Pearl River Delta region.

Kowloon Skyline. Photo: Pianomania

History and City Comparison
Vancouver (founded 1886), and Hong Kong (1842 as Victoria City) are both relatively young cities. Fast forward to 1984, when the two cities started to get a bit closer. That year, the People's Republic of China and the United Kingdom signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which arranged the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty. The agreement guaranteed Hong Kong's status as a "special administrative region" that would retain its laws and autonomy for 50 years after the transfer. That means that in 2047, the "one country, two systems" model of China will end, with Hong Kong being incorporated into the Chinese Communist system of government.

Many Hong Kong citizens felt uncertain about the prospect of living under the Chinese government, in spite of assurances Hong Kong would maintain its democratic government and rights. Thus began the brain drain of Hong Kong. After the Tianamen Square massacre of 1989, many Hong Kongers took advantage of British allowances for moving to Commonwealth countries, including Canada.
Hong Kong's "Double Skyline" with Central (left) and Kowloon (right). Photo: Flickr user: cnmark
Thus began a major influx of Hong Kongers and Hong Kong money into Vancouver. Many Vancouverites began calling their city Hongcouver. Many homes were bought by Hong Kong families, then torn down and made into modern homes, enraging local Vancouverites. The pejorative term "monster houses" was used to describe the new homes. Although many families moved to Vancouver, many workers commuted from Vancouver to their jobs in Hong Kong. This situation brought about the term "astronauts".

Luckily, in the 15 years since Hong Kong transfer to China, Vancouver has become accustomed to its growing Chinese population. In fact, the demographic shift has made Vancouver a more cosmopolitan city. "We are now the most integrated Asian city in North America," says Henry Yu, a professor at University of British Columbia. In an article for the Vancouver Sun, Yu notes,"In a lot of cities Chinese are in certain areas only. But in Vancouver, you can't go to a neighbourhood now where Chinese aren't living in significant numbers. It's incredible."
  • Skyscrapers: Hong Kong has 332 buildings of 100 meters or taller (328 feet). Meanwhile,  Vancouver has 53 buildings over 100 meters. The real story is the density of the two urban centers. Although Hong Kong is denser and taller, both cities' urban centers have great dense clusters of tall buildings. Some have even suggested that Vancouver's density is in part due to Hong Kongers moving to Vancouver and their acceptance of high-rise living.
  • Skylines: Both cities have relatively new skylines. Although they had skylines before the 1980s, they were much less dense or dramatic. 
    • Vancouver's skyline is marked my many more residential towers than office towers. However the towers of Coal Harbour and False Creek, combined with Downtown create a dense, but livable area that is dramatic when seen from English Bay, Stanley Park or North Vancouver.
    • Hong Kong's skyline is a clustered along the north shore of Hong Kong Island. Since the 1980's has developed with dozens of super tall towers including the Bank of China and 2 International Financial Center (2 IFC). Across the harbor, Kowloon has always been a dense neighborhood, however it never had a striking skyline. Although not as noticed as the Hong Kong skyline (much as Jersey City's skyline is overshadowed by Manhattan's), it would be significant in any other city.
      Hong Kong's "portal" towers. Photo: Flickr user bsterling
    • Planners in Hong Kong have created two major towers that create a sort of portal to Victoria Harbor. As shown in the image below,  2 IFC in Central, and the International Commerce Center (ICC) in Kowloon.
Before the 1990s, both cities had much less dramatic skylines.

ZN0Go.jpg (560×372)
Hong Kong in 1980. Photo: Hong Wrong

  • Major port cities: Hong Kong is a major port city, historically and currently providing a critical link to Chinese markets in Guangdong. Hong Kong is the 3rd busiest container port in the world. However, the neighboring Chinese ports in Shenzhen and Guangzhou are megaports as well, ranking 4th and 7th respectively for container traffic. Vancouvers has been a critical west port city since its beginnings in the late-1800s. Timber comprises its largest export, but with diversification it is now Canada's largest port. Vancouver ranks as the 50th busiest container port in the world.
  • Bridges and Tunnels: Both cities have three major crossings of their harbors. However, Vancouvers are bridges, while Hong Kongs are tunnels. The Lantau Link, including the Tsing Ma Bridge, is an impressive series of bridges linking mainland Hong Kong to Lantau Island where the new airport was built. However, these bridges do not cross Victoria Harbor:
    • Vancouver: Lions Gate Bridge, Second Crossings Bridge, and the CNR rail bridge
    • Hong Kong: West Crossings Tunnel, Central Tunnel and East Crossings.
Lions Gate Bridge with Downtown Vancouver, Photo: Maurice Jassak via
File:HK Cross Harbour Tunnel.jpg
Hong Kong's congested Cross-Harbour Tunnel, Photo: Wikipedia

Population Comparison
Vancouver: Metropolitain Vancouver has 2.3 million people, with the City of Vancouver having 603,500 residents, with a density of 5,247 km2. Based on the 2011 Census, Vancouver's downtown peninsula (Downtown Vancouver + the West End) is home to 99,233 residents and a population density of 17,138 per square kilometer (km2). For comparison, Manhattan has a population density of 27,394 km2. Downtown Vancouver would need 60,000 additional residents to reach Manhattan's density. 

Hong Kong: 
In 2010, Hong Kong's population was 7.07 million, with a 6,480/km2 density overall. Note however that much of Hong Kong's land mass is uninhabited due to mountains and steep slopes. So if we look at the three major areas of Hong Kong, we get a better sense of how the city is made up.

Hong Kong Island - 1.29 million people - 16,390/km2 density
Kowloon - 2.09 million people - 43,033/km2 density
New Territories - 3.68 million people - 26,000/km2 density
Northern Hong Kong Island and Kowloon combined form the urban core of the region. Put together, they have a population of approximately 3.16 million, with a density of 35,700 km2.

Incidentally, for Vancouver's downtown peninsula to reach Kowloon's density, it would require an additional 150,000 residents. (i.e. more than doubling the population). For Manhattan to reach Kowloon's density, it would require 1 million more residents than its current 1.6 million population. In fact though, Manhattan reaches a daytime population of 3.6 million due to workers and visitors. That puts its daytime density at 60,500/km2.

Density Summaries (population per square kilometer)
Vancouver: 5,247
Hong Kong: 6,480
New York City: 10,429

Downtown Vancouver Peninsula: 17,138
Hong Kong Island: 16,390, Kowloon: 43,033, New Territories: 26,000
Manhattan (NYC): 26,939

The West End (Vancouver): 21,833
Kwun Tong District (HK): 54,530
Upper East Side (NYC): 45,649

Both cities have younger metro systems. Vancouver's Skytrain opened for the World's Fair "Expo 86" which actually focused on transportation. Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway (MTR) opened in 1979. 

Skytrain: 68.7 km with 47 stations. 392,000 average daily trips.
Hong Kong:  211.6 km with 155 stations. 4,046,000 average daily trips

Vancouver's SeaBus. Photo: Panetheos
 Hong Kong has one of the largest ferry system in the world, with the famous Star Ferry alone carries 26 million passengers a year. 
British Columbia's BC Ferries has a massive ferry system to reach Vancouver Island and other points throughout the Strait of Georgia. BC Ferries carries 20.2 million people annually (and 7.8 million vehicles). Although the system is significant, it is primarily an inter regional ferry system rather than an urban ferry system like in Hong Kong, Istanbul or Sydney. Vancouver's urban ferries include the SeaBus linking Downtown to North Vancouver, and several water taxis serving Downtown, False Creek and Granville Island.

Photo: Wikipedia
Vancouver with fog: Photo:
Vancouver has a British style coat of arms with a ship on top signifying its seaport, two men on each side; a logger and fisherman. The former Hong Kong's British Coat of Arms is no longer used. However, note that the coat of arms has two Chinese junks, while the lion and the dragon represent British and Chinese aspects of Hong Kong. Since the handover to China in 1997, Hong Kong has a regional emblem.

File:Coat of arms of Hong Kong (1959-1997).svgFile:Hong Kong SAR Regional Emblem.svg

In conclusion, Vancouver and Hong Kong are both amazing harbors with dramatic skylines and mountains. Although they are significantly different in terms of population and economic heft, they are both globally oriented cities that have moved beyond their British roots.  Hong Kong may take the cake for pizazz with its stunning skyline, economic power, and its unique history. However, Vancouver has one of the most liveable cities in the world, and has one of the densest skylines in North America.


  1. This is a truly fascinating comparison and such great information. It is amazing how these two vibrant and stunning cities have emerged and expanded so rapidly, to such dramatic effect. Hong Kong is especially spectacular. It's strange that London has stayed so similar in many ways to how it was when these cities were being born and now they have blossomed into truly modern contemporary skylines whilst London stays mostly the same.

    1. Most cities built form, not all, get someone fixed in a certain era. That era is normally their most economically robust era when the largest, grandest and tallest buildings are built (assuming they aren't made of wood). In addition, the street pattern of the city is pretty much fixed in the city center before the city is even built up too much.

      Hong Kong and Vancouver are relatively new cities that are seeing their economic peaks, and may see even greater grandeur in their skylines and built form. London, to many, peaked around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the height of the British Empire. If you want an exclamation point for the moment, it would be Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

      New York City may be an exception, in that it has continually rebuilt itself. Even images of NYC from the 1950s make the skyline look less busy or cluttered. Maybe NYC is still climbing to its pinnacle.

      The other major factor is the decision by city leaders on how to build their city. Places like Paris have decided to have very few tall buildings and instead preserve much of the 19th Century Haussmann era style of the city. If they had been more modern tilting, they may have allowed many more tall buildings in the city limits, much to Le Courbousier's preference.


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