Hong Kong's country park protection must take into account housing needs

Lau Ping Cheung says no global standards exist for how much land to set aside for conservation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 April, 2015, 4:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 April, 2015, 4:17pm

The long-standing era of Lee Kuan Yew may have come to an end with his recent passing but, regardless of your point of view on Lee's political system, the visionary statesman's legacy will be long-lasting.

His endeavour to foster economic and social development, as well as improve people's livelihood, has long been considered an extraordinary feat by friends and foes alike, left, right and centre.

Five decades after its independence in 1965, Singapore's housing programme is now hailed as the most successful policy among Lee's many governance achievements in maintaining social stability and prosperity, accommodating over 80 per cent of its 5.5 million people in public housing and the rest in private housing.

The desire to have a home of one's own is almost universal and Hong Kong is no exception, according to a survey conducted by think tank Our Hong Kong Foundation, which showed that housing topping economic development, health care, retirement protection and political reform, in this order, as a major concern.

But scarcity of usable land means the city's 7.19 million people are homed on just 7 per cent ( 76 square kilometres) of its land mass of 1,108 sq km.

Meanwhile, about 40 per cent of the city's land is designated as country park enclaves.

I have no intention whatsoever to argue against preserving green areas and the biodiversity of flora and fauna in Hong Kong.

In fact, I acknowledge the role the countryside plays in enhancing the general quality of living, which was what prompted the South Korean government into allocating 7.8 per cent of the country's territory for its 21 national parks and dozens of provincial and county parks.

Japan, likewise, dedicates about 5.6 per cent of its land to 31 national parks, plus another 5.2 per cent for prefectural natural parks.

Further abroad, in the United States, more than 400 sites in the National Park system occupy about 3.7 per cent of the country's land.

Referencing these countries, we learn that there isn't a universal benchmark for the percentage of land that should be allocated for country parks, nor is there an international standard or universally accepted definition of country parks, natural parks or national parks.

Also evident is that, with 40 per cent of its land dedicated to country parks, Hong Kong is relatively generous with the land earmarked for natural conservation.

While Hong Kong has the Country Parks Ordinance to thank for the sheer biodiversity the metropolis enjoys, we mustn't forget that the park boundary lines were relatively arbitrary, subjective and unscientific when they were first drawn up in 1976, mainly for water catchment purposes.

In the midst of our heated debate on country park conservation, it is imperative to revisit the issue with a more scientific and objective approach.

Here's the reality of the critical housing issue in Hong Kong: there are approximately 260,000 applications on the waiting list for public rental housing, and some 85,000 families are tenants of unauthorised subdivided flats.

That's close to 1 million people awaiting proper housing, assuming there are 2.9 people per household - a population that can be housed by using just 2.5 per cent of the country park area, which would yield approximately 11 square kilometres of space.

Beyond question is our responsibility to build a sustainable environment for future generations, but equally important is the need to ensure that our future generations will have a roof over their heads, not least by releasing a relatively small segment of the local country park enclaves, in a city known for unaffordable housing prices and exorbitantly high commercial retail and office rents among major international cities.

If the Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew taught us one thing about urban development, it is its "Garden City" journey, otherwise known as the greening campaign, which commenced in 1963 to turn the city into a green oasis for both its citizens and visitors.

Such a greening initiative can certainly be adopted city-wide in Hong Kong to sustain the balance of the ecosystem, in lieu of parts of the country park enclaves to be foregone for housing and related peripheral facilities.

But before that happens, a cross-disciplinary platform for dialogue is necessary, engaging scientists, educators, members of the public, and the government, to seek a practicable solution, derived from a logical, objective and scientific approach.

Lau Ping Cheung is a member of the Economic Development Commission cum convenor of its working group on professional services