Rezoning of Hong Kong’s green belt for housing must be a last resort

Ian Brownlee says the Paris climate accord obliges Hong Kong to do more to protect its natural treasures, so using these sites for a quick fix to our housing shortage is short-sighted

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 December, 2015, 9:50am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 December, 2015, 10:57am

The Paris climate conference achieved an international agreement on limiting global warming. The subsequent focus has mainly been on reducing carbon emissions. In Hong Kong, the focus is on power companies’ fuel mix and reduced electricity use in buildings. But there is more that is relevant to us.

One of the concepts from Paris is the protection and improvement of “carbon sinks”, particularly forests and seas, which applies to our forests, wetlands and surrounding seas. The summit states the importance of “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks”, and notes “the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems”.

Hong Kong is a small city, but by focusing on local impact and mitigation, it can ensure it does its bit. It could also be a model for other high-density cities

Protecting and enhancing forests and biodiversity reinforces the Convention on Biological Diversity, which also applies to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a small city, but by focusing on local impact and mitigation, it can ensure it does its bit. It could also be a model for other high-density cities.

Research in Hong Kong shows a progressive increase in temperature. While some of this is external, the major local impact is the heat-island effect from increased urbanisation. A change in surface from vegetation to concrete can significantly increase temperatures. Retaining vegetated areas, or increasing them, is a major way to combat climate change for us. The Paris accord requires the government to rethink its policy priorities. The rezoning of open space and community sites for housing within our dense urban areas will only exacerbate temperature rises.

READ MORE: Hong Kong government housing plans may intensify ‘heat island’ effect, warns academic

READ MORE: Hong Kong’s public rent hopes slashed as 10-year housing target is lowered

The progress report on the government’s long-term housing strategy, released last week, has cut the 10-year target for housing supply from 480,000 to 460,000 units, but remains the driving force behind most of what the government is doing. Of 150 sites identified for rezoning for housing, 70 are located in green-belt zones and total 150 hectares.

The report states: “Albeit vegetated, these [green belt] sites have relatively low conservation and buffering effect. As these sites are close to supporting infrastructural facilities ... they are considered suitable for urban expansion and have good potential to be rezoned for housing purposes.” There is no consideration of biodiversity or the heat-island effect.

Recently, the chief executive warned that Hong Kong has to decide between the country parks – our carbon sinks – and housing. That is a decision he can leave for another generation, as there are other alternatives for housing.

There is no adequate justification for the planned massive rezoning of land. Figures show that only 106,000 households are inadequately housed. These should be given priority in public housing and rehoused as soon as possible.

READ MORE: Housing in Hong Kong’s city centre must be affordable for both rich and poor

The remaining issue is “affordable housing” and this has never been properly addressed in the housing strategy. Around 18,000 new flats should be produced for the private market every year to maintain a consistent supply. However, the financial restrictions imposed by the Monetary Authority, particularly the high down payments, are the main reasons why private housing is not affordable for young first-time buyers. Irrespective of the number of flats produced, the price is unlikely to become affordable for many because of the financial controls. If the issue of affordability was addressed, then the rezoning of sensitive areas would not be necessary.

The other component that needs to be addressed is the low flat production from the new development areas. Once a decision is made to develop an area in the New Territories, it should be used to the optimum density, rather than artificially reduced. If a development density similar to that of Sha Tin was adopted for the northeast New Territories, Kam Tin South, Hung Shui Kiu and Tung Chung, around 55,000 additional flats could be built.

The Paris accord places a significant requirement on Hong Kong to protect our seas, forests and green areas. The rezoning of green belts and country parks must be a last resort.

Ian Brownlee is a town planner and managing director of Masterplan Limited