Lamma quarry site could be an environmental Eden
Andy Cornish and Jo Wilson argue that by approving a housing development for the Lamma quarry site, the government would be passing up a great environmental opportunity
The first 10 months of the new administration has seen the Environment Bureau lay out more ambitious plans to tackle a swathe of environmental issues than we've seen in the previous five years, and an unprecedented level of collaboration with other bureaus on issues including air pollution and marine litter.
We have a long way to go before the new initiatives bite, as the shocking air pollution demonstrates, but Hong Kong has the expertise and resources to become Asia's greenest city within a decade. Nothing less should be our goal.
However, society can only be expected to respond en masse and get behind the policies if change is palpable, and for that we need physical structures that demonstrate that change is real, and here to stay. Cutting-edge office buildings equipped with futuristic turbines, green facades and other visible innovations in the heart of our commercial districts would be one example.
Changing human behaviour is notoriously difficult, but as adults we will also need to adjust to new realities of constrained natural resources, and other limits to our development. Life has become so complex that adults will need education too. The world simply doesn't have the luxury of time to wait until our enlightened youngsters become tomorrow's decision-makers.
There is an incredible opportunity to address these challenges and add real value to Hong Kong and it has been sitting right under our noses for years - at the old quarry site across from Sok Kwu Wan on Lamma Island. The Lamma quarry was rehabilitated in 2002 and is a 20-hectare site with a man-made lake inhabited by egrets and other wildlife.
The government is currently deciding what to do with the site and has conducted the first stage of a public consultation. Sadly, Hong Kong is in danger of missing a fabulous opportunity to create a flagship project to transform attitudes and behaviour in conjunction with the community.
Instead, three options for development have been presented for the rubber stamp - all versions of the same design featuring a mix of housing, restaurants, waterfront promenade, and a water sports facility. The unique nature of Lamma as the car-free, biodiverse "back-garden" of Hong Kong is recognised and then ignored as the development options mimic Discovery Bay, with housing for 2,800 to 7,000 people proposed.
No doubt Hong Kong has major housing issues, but adding housing to every available site, especially one with only ferry access, is no way to go about things strategically.
A far more suitable inspiration point lies further afield - at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. This world leader in environmental education, with its distinctive biodomes, was established in an abandoned quarry in 2001, has become a "national treasure" and has won many awards.
It attracts more than a million visitors a year and has generated £1.2 billion (HK$14.3 billion) in new wealth for Cornwall since opening. Fundamentally, it seeks to connect people with nature.
To imagine the ripple effect a Lamma Eden project could generate, as the first of its kind in Asia, think about the Wetland Park in Tin Shui Wai, which is much more of a niche market in scope. Successful in itself as a visitor attraction, with around 450,000 visitors annually, it was one of the first of its kind in China, and has inspired many others: there are some 298 National Wetland Parks in China, and at least 100 more at provincial level.
The opportunity to partner directly with the Eden Project is very real. The project's founder, Tim Smit, has said that not only is the Eden Project looking to spread its vision in other countries, but Hong Kong would be of great interest if it was part of a credible sustainable development plan and if resources were available.
It is clear from the consultation hearings that the public is not opposed to developing the quarry, but is concerned that the best use be made of the unique site, and of the limited options presented.
Villagers at Sok Kwu Wan understandably want better ferry services, medical services and economic opportunities. Few of the environmentalists were totally against development in the quarry, but many had serious concerns about the concrete-pouring options, the impact on the rest of the island and the quarry wildlife, not to mention the Civil Engineering and Development Department's intention and ability to execute a project with sensitivity and in tune with Lamma. A mutually beneficial solution is clear, and one that can even enhance wildlife.
The chief executive's election mani-festo stated that, "Going forward, policies should be formulated from a sustainable development perspective … We need to reinforce public education, raise the entire community's awareness of environmental protection and make concerted efforts to discharge our duty as global citizens."
The Lamma site offers the opportunity to do just that, and on a globally significant scale. Will we take advantage, or close our eyes and leave it to others?
Andy Cornish, PhD, is an independent advocate for sustainable development. Jo Wilson is the chairman of Living Lamma