• Tue
  • Dec 23, 2014
  • Updated: 10:46am

Gavin Coates

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 November, 2010, 12:00am

IN FROM THE COLD As a teenager, I was not very sociable but I got really interested in horticulture and natural history. I have always been able to draw and I thought landscape architecture would combine both interests. I studied in Leeds [in England] in 1975 and then worked for Brian Clouston and Partners, which in those days was a titan of the landscaping world. I got the opportunity to come out to Hong Kong on a three-month contract in 1982 and never left. I was sick to death of London. It was in a completely miserable phase. The unions and [prime minister Margaret] Thatcher were fighting; electricity strikes, tube strikes, every kind of strike. The whole atmosphere was dismal. That winter was also the coldest since the 1960s - it went down to minus 19 degrees [Celsius] one night and I was in a bedsit. It was like living in Omsk! It was awful.

SITES FOR SORE EYES Hong Kong was much more chaotic back then and building hell-for-leather. Whole cities were being built from scratch. When I first saw Sha Tin, there was one housing estate and a load of reclamation. In Tseung Kwan O, there were just shipwrecking yards and a village that bred dogs for eating. At that time, the Territory Development Department had been given the task of building the new towns and had planners, landscape architects - all the different professions - working together, and you can see the result. It's not so cohesive any more, unfortunately. Tai Po, for example, is a very nice place: all the roads designed with tree planting, the river is shaped nicely, town parks ... To design parks from scratch was a marvellous experience professionally, and I get a huge kick out of seeing people enjoying them 25 years later.

LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE TREES We've got these fantastic country parks based on the catchment areas for the old reservoirs, which we used before we got water regularly from China. It means people can get easily into wild countryside. But people don't really take advantage of that, so you have to bring the landscape to them. These tiny urbanised areas are so dense, high rise and intense that there's even more reason to bring [in] trees and landscaping. Independent studies show greening in cities has a very beneficial effect on feelings of well-being - and also on cooling. Concrete reflects the heat and all the air conditioners and vehicles blast out heat, so urban areas can be six or seven degrees hotter than rural areas. And we all get fed up. Every tree does a little bit to alleviate that. Trees might not make a real difference to pollution but they can make a big difference to temperatures and tempers.

THE BANYAN MAN I worked on the big banyan tree at Pacific Place, between the Conrad and the Island Shangri-La hotels. It used to be part of Victoria Barracks and the government forced Swire Properties to keep [the tree] in situ. Swire wasn't very happy at the time but now it uses the tree's preservation in its marketing. It has ended up in a pot, seven metres deep. During renovations, when it was in the middle of the site, I had to get workers to break up all these concrete paving slabs so I could water it.

This whole urban tree issue has become a hot topic, especially since a lady was killed by a tree in Stanley. In newly developed areas on the mainland, the landscaping is impressive but they've got the space to do it. If you have 20-metre to 30-metre verges along the side of a road, a branch falling off a tree is not going to hit anybody. In Hennessy Road, we're planting into a medium that's not even two metres wide, and which millions of people use every week.

SOUNDS LIKE A PLAN I work for landscape architects ACLA but I'm on loan to Hong Kong's Civil Engineering and Development Department [CEDD] for its Greening Master Plan. The first phase, in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui, was about three years ago; the rows of banyan trees and shrubs near the Central ferries were part of that. Phase two was Sheung Wan to Causeway Bay, Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok, and was completed this year. Phase three covers all the rest.

Underground utilities are a huge problem. Lift up a paving block and there's a solid mass of cables; water pipes and electric and telephone company cables. Above ground, there are sightline issues and signs, street lamps and traffic lights all competing for space. So, yes, sometimes plans look a lot greener than they end up. On top of that you occasionally get public objections: often shopkeepers don't see the benefit of a tree outside their shop, stopping people seeing their advertising or signage, and if they say no, we can't do anything. The government simply doesn't have time to deal with the subsequent legislation.

CHANGING NATURE I wrote some environmental children's books in the 1990s and this project is making those stories come true in a way. I've always been a frustrated artist and, in the late 80s, I did a lot of illustrations for magazines and newspapers. In 2000, I became a regular editorial cartoonist for the Hong Kong Standard, five times a week. You're driven by fear, basically, drawing at that rate. There comes a point where you've just got to pray for inspiration.

I've spent most of my life criticising the government and now I'm working for it. That's kind of ironic. But I believe that credit should be given where it's due. These are early days but it's doing as much as it can, given the present realities.

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