In crowded Hong Kong, public safety must trump conservation of unsafe trees
If one had to choose between saving trees or human lives, no one would sacrifice the latter in favour of the former. This is also the guiding principle for officials in charge of tree management, whose decision to chop off four stonewall trees deemed unsafe has sparked outrage in certain quarters in society. The loss of the century-old trees in the heart of a historic neighbourhood is no doubt saddening. But had officials just sat back and done nothing, the consequences could have been life-threatening.
It should not be forgotten that the removal of the four trees on Bonham Road came after another 21-metre high Chinese Banyan at the site crashed onto a building across the road during heavy rain and injured two people last month. It was sheer luck that no one was killed. There have been at least four fatalities over the past six years, the last one involving a heavily pregnant woman killed by a collapsed 10-metre-high tree on a private slope of a Mid-Levels residential block last year.
Pressured by growing discontent and a possible investigation by the Ombudsman, the Highways Department released a 29-page report on the emergency felling of the four trees on August 7. After the collapse of the 21-metre tree at the site, the parapet wall behind the four remaining trees was found to have new cracks, which experts believed were alarming signs of tree anchorage instability. As there is a bus stop beneath the trees and ground-level shops across the road, the consequences of a collapse during busy hours could have been disastrous, according to the report.
The report is unlikely to change the minds of those who are convinced the department made the wrong decision. But it helps explains the consideration behind the action, which came after other remedial options were deemed unfeasible. Belated as it is, the full account of the incident is to be welcomed. It would have been better had the department disclosed the justification before taking action. Tree accidents are inevitable given the city's terrain and weather. Sometimes it is wise to err on the side of caution, especially when public safety is involved.