Landmark trees deserve protection
It is ironic that even as the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) has undertaken an urban greening project that includes planting thousands of new trees in Hong Kong, it is doing nothing to protect the precious few older ones that we have left. Especially vulnerable are the 300 or so century-old trees still around in our parks and urban areas. In the past eight years alone, according to one expert, 54 of them have been lost.
These trees provide us with an important link to the past - all the more important in areas where redevelopment is constant - but efforts to save them go far beyond sheer sentimentality. In a city as densely packed and urbanised as Hong Kong, trees and greenery provide us with much-needed respite. Older trees, with their spreading foliage, provide shelter from the elements and act as the lungs of the city, helping to purify air polluted by exhaust from cars and buses. It would be hard to imagine how much lower the quality of urban life would be without the greenery that we have.
The weakness in the system is that there are no rules requiring protection of the city's older trees. Private developers wanting permission to remove trees must apply to the Lands Department, while government departments apply to the LCSD; decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and the only binding requirement is to prevent the destruction of some 40 endangered species. The result is the loss of many older trees, a good number of them victims of the LCSD's own landscaping and improvement projects. There are no formal provisions for removing and relocating trees thought to be of historic value, and no requirement for any government department to protect landmark trees. Green groups and concerned citizens can try their luck by lodging complaints, but until such requirements are set, these departments are under no obligations.
As part of its greening campaign, the LCSD has undertaken a New Territories tree survey, according to its website. It is understood to be creating a database of important trees. In addition, Jim Chi-yung of the University of Hong Kong has compiled a record of century-old trees in a book. If Professor Jim is correct, the present rate of development would result in a total loss of these so-called champion trees within 50 years.
The awareness of such trees exists, inside the government and among the public. The next step would be to introduce binding protection for the ones we still have - before they are all gone. Hong Kong's outlying areas, with their rolling hills and vast stretches of green, are the result of a conscious decision by city planners to protect them to the greatest extent possible. Now we need to apply the same conservationist mindset to the greenery in our urban areas, including our irreplaceable landmark trees.