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Durham University

Durham University News


Hong Kong’s pre-eminent social housing pioneer honoured in the UK

(28 June 2011)

Donald Poon-huai Liao

Social reforming politician and pioneering landscape architect Donald Poon-huai Liao is made a Doctor of Science at Durham University in recognition of a career that has improved the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people.

Mr Liao, 82, has enjoyed a meteoric career as a landscape architect who revolutionised the approach to social housing in his adopted home of Hong Kong and laterally as a reforming politician was a moderniser who helped address the many issues relating to the region's more overcrowded districts.

Mr Liao, originally from Taiwan, said: "I am so honoured to be awarded a Doctorate of Science by Durham University - the place I was able to first study landscape architecture after winning a precious British Council scholarship.

"After being advised by a great mentor of mine to study the exciting and dynamic discipline of landscape architecture, I was very fortunate to do this at King's College Durham in 1957."

Mr Liao was awarded a degree in landscape design from Durham University giving him the theoretical foundations for a career dedicated to designing and managing some of Hong Kong's most ambitious social housing projects.

"The principles I developed at Durham shaped my later career working for the Hong Kong Housing Authority - the concept of decent large scale public and private sector residential developments," said Mr Liao.

"My view was I could carry on teaching, which I really enjoyed, but I wanted to really test my skills by gaining practical experience of designing projects that would make a difference to people's lives."

After becoming the first member of the Hong Kong Institute for Landscape Architects, Mr Liao designed and managed some of Hong Kong's biggest social housing projects during the 1960s and 70s, rising to become a world-leading expert on the new concept of utilitarian public housing with the specific aim of ridding Hong Kong of its overcrowded shanty areas.

He said: "One of the projects I worked on, the Wah Fu estate (completed in 1967-68), involved turning just 24 acres of land into over 50,000 flats. It was said to me at the time that this was the population of the British town Guildford.

"But despite the issue of limited space I always ensured that there were shared open spaces, good facilities, including shops, banks, libraries and beautiful views, so that residents were able to have a decent quality of life."

His approach to landscape architecture fulfilled a key element of the public health agenda in Hong Kong and received worldwide acclaim and Mr Liao made a smooth transition from architect to politician becoming Hong Kong's Commissioner for Housing and a member of the Town Planning Board aged only 39.

As a member of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group he was also a leading figure in the negotiations to ensure the smooth transition of Hong Kong to the Chinese authorities. He served in several senior government posts until his eventual retirement in 1989 - just after accompanying his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and Princess Diana on a visit to the region.

Professor Chris Higgins, Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, said: "Durham University offers its students a unique experience combining a first-class education, delivered by some of the world's leading academics, with the personal and social development programmes offered by our colleges. Such an experience differentiates Durham from all other universities, and we refer to it as the 'Durham difference'.

"Our honorary degree recipients are a great example of this difference and we are privileged to honour their hard work, talent and success. I am sure Donald Liao will prove inspirational to our graduates as they set out on achieving their own goals and ambitions."

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