How much land do we have?
Bernard Chan considers the conflicting ideas that create confusion
Look at a satellite photograph of Hong Kong, and the first thing you notice is how much countryside there is. We are roughly comparable in terms of population and area with New York City, but our land use is totally different. While the majority of their space is under concrete, our built-up area accounts for just 23.7 per cent of our total, and that includes utilities, transport networks and urban parks. Only 6.8 per cent of our land is used for homes, and just a bit over half of that is in our urban areas.
This extreme concentration brings real benefits. Dense development and a highly efficient public transport system create a level of convenience that we miss when we visit far more spread-out cities and look for a 7-Eleven. But it has drawbacks. Homes are small, streets and pavements are congested and the air is trapped by tall buildings.
To the extent Hong Kong is already built, there is not much we can do. We can, and should, try to fix such side effects as the poor air and overcrowding. But the main question now is what we do with the rest of Hong Kong - the remaining areas of countryside and farmland, areas due for redevelopment and areas theoretically available through reclamation.
We are told that Hong Kong has a serious shortage of land. A look at the satellite photo shows that this is not true - though a lot depends on how much we want to protect country parks and conservation areas, which account for 46 per cent of our 1,100 square kilometres. Just 5 per cent of that space would equal our entire current private urban residential area.
Population trends are a critical factor, but again the picture is highly confusing. The government was forecasting a population of 8.89 million in 30 years' time, but cut that to 8.47 million after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced a ban on births here by mainland mothers without local partners. The fact that one policy shift can make a difference of 420,000 to our population is amazing. What would happen if, for example, a new policy or social trend attracts a lot more retirees to live on the mainland, or if cross-border marriages take off and far more mainlanders come to live here? It makes me wonder whether population forecasts are of any use, or how a population strategy could really be devised.
We have a severe shortage of homes. Yet when the government tries to plan new housing developments in the northeastern New Territories, opposition groups and activists vow to fight the idea. If someone proposes a higher density of development at Kai Tak, there are objections. A suggestion to use space allocated for a stadium at Kai Tak, which would yield thousands of homes, met fierce opposition from sports-related interests. The recent increase in stamp duties on residential property, aimed essentially at mainland buyers, has drawn criticism for going too far or not far enough.
But then again, do we really have a shortage of homes? There are about 2.6 million residential units in this city and 2.35 million households. Some say we have tens of thousands of empty units. That is enough to meet growth in household numbers for many years. Is it practical, or acceptable, to penalise owners of empty flats? What are the costs to our environment - if we go for reclamation or developing country parks - of allowing flats to stay empty?
It is not just about housing. We need more commercial space, as any shopkeeper struggling to pay the rent will tell you. Or do we? A single policy change - like a cut in import taxes on the mainland - could cut tourist numbers significantly and bring rents down again.
In short, it is hardly surprising that we are confused about land. Conservation priorities, mainland mothers, migration patterns and tourist levels leave us unable to work out how much we have, and how much we need.
Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council