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Urban Sociology specialist Professor Ray Forrest joins Lingnan

Urban Sociology specialist Professor Ray Forrest joins Lingnan

Prof Ray Forrest, a keen observer of contemporary urban issues, explains why he chose Lingnan and Hong Kong.


Prof Ray Forrest had a tough choice to make. His contract at City University of Hong Kong, where he had been Head of Department of Public Policy for five years, was coming to an end, and he had two offers on the table. One was from a major university elsewhere in the region and the other from Lingnan University here in Hong Kong. Ultimately he chose Lingnan, where he assumed the position of research professor this August.


What motivated his choice? First, he considered the contribution he would be able to make, “It is a small university, focusing just on social sciences and humanities. I felt I could add more values here.” He also thought he would enjoy the more intimate atmosphere of Lingnan, which would make for a better teaching environment. “I can get to know the students’ names at Lingnan, whereas bigger universities in Asia and the West tend to be like factories.”


It didn’t hurt that he has a personal connection to Lingnan in the person of Vice-President Joshua Mok, Lingnan’s Lam Man Tsan Chair Professor of Comparative Policy and Prof Forrest’s colleague from their days at the University of Bristol in UK. Besides, he has family here: both his son and daughter are currently working in the city.


Hong Kong: The ideal urban laboratory


As a specialist in urban sociology, Prof Forrest believes Hong Kong is an ideal laboratory for his research. “I like Hong Kong, as there’s always something happening. If you’re interested in cities, this is the place to be.”


Generally speaking, he’s fascinated by life in the contemporary city. “Do people care about neighbourhoods these days, do they talk to each other, what’s it like to live in a high-rise environment instead of a low-rise environment? All of that is interesting to me.”


His specific focus is housing, which he began his academic career studying. Back then, in the 1980s, people took for granted that a house or apartment was where you lived. You can’t take that for granted anymore, because today it’s often an investment. This trend has caused housing prices to go up dramatically, not only in Hong Kong but across the developed world.


Prof Forrest’s latest work on the topic is in an upcoming book he is co-authoring called Property Cities: Housing under Neoliberalism. The thesis of his book is that over the past 30 or 40 years, city economies have become dominated by real estate, because now people tend to put their money in property rather than in savings accounts or pension plans.


“You can’t really understand what is going on in cities without understanding the real estate market, whereas 30 years ago that wasn’t so much the case,” says Prof Forrest. “The price of houses went up back then because people’s incomes went up. Now, the housing market itself has an impact on the local and global economy. This was what contributed to the financial crisis in 2008, when even chief executives of financial institutions didn’t know what was going on because they didn’t understand the algorithms.”


Concern for the next generation


The demographic group most affected by the social shift towards real estate is the younger generation. “What I’ve been looking at in recent years is young people and their housing situation in Hong Kong and elsewhere. That connects to marriage and fertility, as more and more young people are spending longer and longer at home because they can’t afford their own homes, a situation similar to what is happening in Japan.”


The unaffordability of housing is related to rising youth discontent, because young people are finding it harder to attain financial independence, and dependence shapes young people’s identity. For many, the cost of housing is also a threat to democracy, which is based on the principle of social equality. What is the fate of democracy in a time of extreme economic inequality? This is the question Prof Forrest tried to answer in his previous co-edited book, Cities and the Super-Rich: Real Estate, Elite Practices and Urban Political Economies.


Though he is concerned about the younger generation, he is also hopeful: “When I first came to Hong  Kong, I was told young people here don’t care about anything except money, that they are apolitical. But I’ve been surprised just how much young people do care about the way society is run. Their concern is very encouraging.”