Hong Kong's illicit love affair with concrete has calmed down a little in recent times, but still shows no sign of ending. When slopes do have to be smothered with 'shotcrete', efforts are at last being made to disguise the site by pegging the ground with a special netting which encourages grass to grow through. If only there were a similarly easy solution to the concrete walkways now interlacing the countryside and the islands.
These paths proliferate at an alarming rate. Besides being unsightly, intrusive and out of harmony with the areas they traverse, they are hard on the feet and make walking the hills far less pleasant than treading natural ground. More pressing, taxpayers might think, is the question of how much this unnecessary work is costing. The Geotechnical Engineering Office put the maintenance cost between 1990 and 2000 at $747 million, and the annual expenditure on shotcreting at $140 million.
Most is spent by the Highways Department on slopes in urban areas, where it is needed to protect roads and buildings. But far too much is wasted in the backwoods. The Water Supplies Department, which maintains roads around reservoirs, is trying to cut back on shotcrete. And a letter on this page from the Director of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation emphasises the department keeps concrete paths to a minimum.
But other departments involved in countryside works are apparently still oblivious to even elementary environmental concerns. The road from Sham Wat to Sha Lo Wan on North Lantau, mentioned on page one of our Features section, highlights the relatively simple process involved in finding a way round the regulations that exist.
When a sizeable rural community has to walk twice daily between one point and another, there is some reason for paving well trodden natural trails. But that is not the case in many remote areas of the SAR, where flora and fish life is being degraded. Concerns about erosion on well-worn routes can sometimes make formal walkways necessary. But that must be done with a modicum of sensitivity for the landscape, and natural stone is a far more appropriate medium to use in those cases.
After a long campaign in the Post letters column, there is growing environmental awareness in some departments. The result is more grass and less grey slopes. That is progress. But how long before the passion for paving dies and officialdom agrees to keep its hands off the footpaths?