Battle ahead for green revolution

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 July, 2002, 12:00am

IF A COLOUR WAS CHOSEN to reflect Hong Kong's image, grey might be the most obvious choice.

The tower blocks, congested roads and the fog of pollution which often shrouds Victoria Harbour present a gloomy urban picture. It is one which appeared to be reflected on the front cover of the latest Lonely Planet guide to Hong Kong, which featured a smoggy view of the Bank of China.

While Hong Kong has seen much economic and technological development over the years, it remains one of the least environmentally aware cities in the region. It even lags behind many cities on the mainland.

The planting and protection of trees and shrubs is seen as a vital part of this battle. Ideas being put forward include a proposed tree authority and a tree ordinance.

The government has long recognised the need to add a splash of green to urban areas. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa first mentioned his wish to beautify the city in his 1999 policy speech.

About $170 million will be spent on tree planting this financial year. This figure will rise to $292 million next year for the planting of 4.2 million trees, flowers and shrubs in urban areas.

But Professor Jim Chi-yung, head of the geography department at the University of Hong Kong, says this won't be easy.

His research into roadside tree planting has revealed a long list of obstacles. There is limited space for the trees to grow, both above and below ground. Poor-quality soil is another problem. But most important are failures in town planning which slow down the greening process.

Since 1985, Professor Jim's team has been involved in a massive survey of roadside trees, tracking down locations and features of more than 20,000.

For the 1,200km of footpaths in the urban area along Victoria Harbour there is, on average, only one tree every 62.7 metres.

His survey found that trees along roads plagued by congested traffic are mostly squeezed into cramped sites, with their roots fighting for space underground with pipes and cables for gas, electricity or telephones.

More than one-third of the trees exist in sites measuring less than four metres wide. They are sealed with concrete and their roots suffer from 'breathing difficulties'.

Frequent digging works and leakage from pipes, such as sewage and sea water, can harm the roots. Roadside soil is often contaminated and mixed with construction rubble. Professor Jim's analysis of 100 urban soil samples revealed a high percentage of sand and stone.

Environmentalists say such problems can not be overcome simply by spending more money on a greening process. What is needed is a more co-ordinated approach.

Dr Man Chi-sum, chief executive officer of environmental group Green Power, says that too many government departments are involved in areas affecting the project.

They include departments responsible for areas such as planning, works, agriculture and leisure and cultural services.

Dr Man says Hong Kong could learn from the mainland, where provincial governments have designated authorities to take care of tree planting.

'The greening of many Guangdong cities is much better than in Hong Kong. There are beautiful trees planted not only along the roads but in the middle of them. It shows good planning before the roads are built,' Dr Man says.

'Guangzhou, for example, has recently introduced a new tree adoption programme. Owners of shops near the roadside trees are responsible for maintaining them. They enjoy doing it because the trees improve the environment and attract more customers.'

In Hong Kong, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) takes care of more than 670,000 urban trees of 386 species. About 60 per cent of them are flowering trees.

Eddy Yau Kwok-yin, the department's assistant director, admits Hong Kong lags behind many mainland cities in terms of greenery. 'In Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, for example, space is reserved for tree planting at a very early stage of town planning,' he says.

But previously in Hong Kong, 'if a project lacked funds, tree planting was the first part to be cut. Hong Kong is so crowded that in many developed areas, it is so difficult to find places to plant trees'.

Mr Yau says more than 80 per cent of Hong Kong's roadside areas preliminarily identified as potential planting sites are ruled out because of a lack of space underground.

Another problem is that land leases for private developments granted before the 1970s did not prevent developers from chopping down trees.

Last year, Happy Valley residents were angry when a row of old trees in the lower part of Blue Pool Road were pulled down to make way for a development project. The developer, Hang Lung Group, said the trees were situated on an unsafe slope and were felled for public safety.

Mr Yau, who is also president of the Hong Kong Society of Horticulture, says several departments had tried to save the trees but the land lease did not require the developer to keep them.

In an attempt to improve the situation, all new flyovers and footbridges in future will have space reserved for plants as part of co-operation between the LCSD and the Highways Department.

Lawrence Cheung Yiu-kong, of the LCSD, says about 300 flower-planting sites will be put along three footbridges in Central and Wan Chai next month in a pilot programme. Also, 24 flower baskets will be hung on lamp posts in the Causeway Bay pedestrian area.

'Hong Kong cannot afford big pieces of land for tree planting. We have to find our own way. Putting flower baskets on the lamp posts is one way we can beautify our city with very limited space,' Mr Cheung says.

The LCSD last year launched a beautification programme for the North Lantau Highway connecting urban Hong Kong to the airport. So far, 5,000 trees and 100,000 shrubs have been planted along the highway. Flowers will blossom in different seasons.

But green groups argue that further action is needed. They are calling for a tree ordinance and a tree authority in order to better ensure trees are protected.

Such an authority would be empowered to allocate planting sites in a way that would protect trees. Similar mechanisms have been set up in other countries. In the United States, for example, every city has a municipal body overseeing tree planting and conservation.

Legislator Choy So-yuk, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, is preparing a private members bill to be introduced in the Legislative Council to protect old and valuable trees.

Her bill proposes outlawing the removal of trees that are more than 100 years old or those with particular historical or cultural value. It also proposes the creation of an appeal body to deal with any special request to fell those trees.

Ms Choy, also chairwoman of the Hong Kong Tree Conservation Association, says that under such a scheme 'even if the chief executive wanted to build an office or residence somewhere, he could not pull down a valuable tree at the site. Perhaps he could apply for a special permit to transplant the tree 50 metres away'. Professor Jim says: 'Many people regard trees as lampposts, not living plants. They show no passion for trees, and that is heartbreaking. Humanity and nature have an in-born link. Trees can help re-establish this link.'

Ella Lee is a staff writer for the Post's news desk