Needless railings on paths spoil our surroundings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 June, 2009, 12:00am

The path to ruin is paved with good intentions. Nowhere is this adage literally truer than on footpaths across our city. Iron railings have been erected along extended stretches of roads and trails in Mid-Levels and other districts. Officials say they are necessary for pedestrian safety; concern groups dispute their claim and charge that the railings, which are often high, are not only unnecessary but ruin the scenic surroundings. We have seen such bureaucratic machinations before, with the shotcreting of slopes in urban areas and the pouring of concrete over country park trails. Few people would dispute that officials have a responsibility to ensure and enhance safety for hikers and park visitors, but they also need to preserve natural beauty by making sure such public works blend in with their environment.

The latest row centres on a plan to erect railings along Old Peak Road in Central. Officials say the work, which, it is estimated, will cost HK$700,000, is necessary for safety reasons, though the plan has apparently been drawn up in response to a single complaint. A hikers' group, which has mobilised residents and fellow hikers to oppose the plan, says there has not been any record of accidents on the road that would warrant putting up the railings. It has a point. Such works should only be carried out when there is a demonstrable risk, not on the basis of a hypothetical or imaginary danger. Works have been halted and a second consultation has been conducted, though the results are still being tallied. Hopefully, a compromise can be reached and the work scaled down.

Similar rows have blown up time and again in recent years. Last year, hikers were upset by the paving of a scenic section of the Hong Kong Trail in Big Wave Bay, Shek O. Shortly before that, officials paved over a century-old trail laid with granite slabs in Western. Similar works have been carried out on trails through country parks in Sai Kung and Lantau.

No one doubts the need for more greenery in Hong Kong to reverse the suffocating effects of the concrete jungles we have erected in urban areas. Every effort should be made to preserve or plant greenery. People want wide open spaces with green grass under their feet; erecting railings and shotcreting small and minor slopes are not what people desire, though they may be necessary in some cases.

Extending such works to country parks and old trails is even more objectionable, as people visit such places to get away from the hustle and bustle of urban life. The city has a long history of fatal landslides, so shotcreting is seen as a short, quick and cheap way to ensure safety. But it should be done only as a last resort, not as the first reflex. Government officials are prone to overreaction because they face a hypercritical public. There may also, understandably, be a desire to provide work for people in the current economic downturn. New projects are welcome, but they must be worthwhile.

Officials must be responsive to public concerns, but also careful not to overreact to complaints. They want to pre-empt criticism and avoid mistakes, but this means they are likely to commit to overly extensive public works, usually on the grounds of safety. A single complaint, or a slight possibility of danger, is enough to trigger so-called 'enhancement works' such as railings, shotcreting and concreting of paths and slopes. Officials would make far better and braver civil servants if they were to work to balance public safety with the public interest in natural beauty.