Paul Zimmerman of Designing HK: make our city a better home

Paul Zimmerman

Paul Zimmerman likes to recount that whenever he returns to his native Holland, he goes through the Dutch passport holders’ queue. There is usually confusion when he presents his Chinese passport to the customs officer. “I look Dutch, and I speak Dutch,” states Zimmerman with an impish grin, explaining that he gave up his original passport for a Chinese one a few years back. “Despite the double takes, the officer will wave me through.”

Zimmerman first fell in love with his adopted hometown in 1977, on his first trip to Hong Kong with his family. “My dad was a textiles trader, and he came to China in the early to mid 70s on buying trips,” he recalls. In 1984, he returned to escape military service in the Netherlands after completing a master degree in economics at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University. What was initially a three month stint with a Dutch bank sparked the young entrepreneur’s ambitions, and Zimmerman established a successful public relations business. “With my economics background, I was the only one who could talk to clients in their own language,” he quips. He later followed up with a Master of Arts in transport policy and planning from The University of Hong Kong.

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Paul Zimmerman

Zimmerman’s passion for the city’s extreme urban and natural beauty prompted him to establish Designing Hong Kong in 2002, a non-profit organization that emphasises liveable density. “I stayed in Hong Kong out of pure stubbornness at first,” he shrugs. “I had no money in my pocket, yet one job led to another. I loved it here. Hong Kong is the only place I know that has this combination of hyper density with wilderness. I can have a wide range of high quality experiences during a single day: ride my motorbike to Ma On Shan, do some hiking, go paragliding, and be back in Central for a meeting.”

Along with the advocacy activities of Designing Hong Kong, Zimmerman is a member of think tank Civic Exchange’s board of directors and on its Walkability initiative’s expert panel. “At Civic Exchange, funds are directed at different topics of interest—areas where policy is required and that involve research,” he explains. “As a director, I help steer and get involved in aspects such as strategy, funding and putting the right staff in place. Designing Hong Kong is more reactive. Communities will seek us out. We see things that are not happening, and we will poke at it. Such as land supply and suggestions to take away land from country parks. If the boundary of a country park is gone, where will it end? The result will be incremental deterioration—more roads and more buildings. We feel that it is important to keep the overall mass of our country parks, for everyone to enjoy.” While Zimmerman admits that some scenarios are not “winnable, we still need to fight the fight. Losing doesn’t mean losing, necessarily.”

Paul Zimmerman

His public service record extends to him currently serving a second term as an elected District Councillor representing Pok Fu Lam, despite his home being in Clearwater Bay. “Since most of my activities are reported in English, I looked at all the districts where South China Morning Post dominated people’s reading,” he admits. “The Pok Fu Lam seat became vacant, and I won it with more than 60 percent of the votes. Pok Fu Lam’s residents are spread over a wide area; they don’t need someone who sits in a shop there to represent them. They are practical people: they just want someone who can get things done.”

Zimmerman feels that while Hong Kong’s public housing record is strong, it is the private sector that is wanting a livability perspective. His advice to residential developers: “the hero should be how a property can improve a community, rather than the project itself.”

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