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Hong Kong housing

Can Hong Kong’s leaders show the resolve to spare country parks and build on brownfield sites instead?

Michael Lau and Douglas Anderson say an environmentally risky focus on developing country parks and reclamation is inexplicable, when brownfield sites provide the perfect building sites

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 5:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 6:58pm

Ask anyone in Hong Kong and they will say our country parks are a precious and indispensable resource that makes life in the city a pleasure. ­Escaping the tangle of urban life is a step, or a bus or train ride, away.

After the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis in 2003, city dwellers reintroduced themselves to Hong Kong’s green lungs. And they breathed deep. The appreciation and love of our country parks runs in the DNA of Hong Kong people. People just know that they are good for the city, good for the public and good for our environment.

The debate on whether natural areas should be sacrificed to ­address Hong Kong’s housing crisis has heated up again. We want to pour icy cold water from the waterfalls of Mui Wo on the ­notion that this is a viable development option.

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First, there was the Our Hong Kong Foundation report, “From Large-scale Reclamation to an Ideal Home”, demanding five new areas of reclamation. A chill went up the spine of many nature lovers. And then the government invited the Hong Kong Housing Society to study two country park fringe areas for their suitability for public housing.

There is a wide consensus in society that Hong Kong is facing an imminent housing crisis. So we should address the problem with hard facts. As tens of thousands wait for a chance to occupy a public housing flat or overpay for a shoebox-sized private one, we appreciate the aspiration of families for a safe place to live and raise a family.

But why do people want to target our country parks, when more suitable land lies close to our new towns and transport systems – land that is underutilised, poorly planned and causing environmental problems?

The city has enough ­developable land if it has the resolve to build on brownfield sites

We are talking about our brownfield sites – an estimated 1,200 hectares of available land.

The government and some people close to our leaders have been preaching that there is a shortage of developable land and the solution lies in our natural areas, our sea, or both. They point out that our country parks occupy 40 per cent of our land area, much more than the 24 per cent of built-up areas, repeating there is a shortage of land to build on. We need land. We need new land. They need a new song in their repertoire. The city has enough ­developable land if it has the resolve to build on brownfield sites.

Take a ride from Kam Tin to Yuen Long and then to Lau Fau Shan, or from Lok Ma Chau to Man Kam To. You will see plenty of container parks, open storage, workshops or hoarded vacant land just next to the road. Even in urban areas, there are disused schools, old warehouses and other facilities lying vacant for years. Is this a good way to use our precious and limited land resources?

The current administration has actually put a lot of effort into providing space for new flats. The number of units being built and planned amount to over 600,000. That is nearly 25 per cent more than what is needed to meet the demand of the over 480,000 families that will need housing between now and 2049.

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Based on government figures, the population will start declining by 2043. So can you blame us for being sceptical about needing 4,000 hectares more of reclaimed land, as Our Hong Kong claimed, to tackle the housing crisis?

Developing country parks or ­reclaiming the seas would be a long process requiring planning, environmental impact assessments, ­approvals and complicated engineering work. These will certainly take longer to produce housing on than building on brownfield sites that already have the necessary infrastructure. This is why many of us do not think these are solutions for our imminent housing needs.

The pilot study by the Hong Kong Housing Society to look into developing Tai Lam and Shui Chuen O can be argued to be of public interest. However, there are plenty of alternative and even better sites that can be used, right now, far from the borders of any country park. Why would the government consider these two developments? Will there be “grander” proposals to follow? We’d like some answers.

Building in our natural areas would cause irreversible damage. Our mountains, forests, streams and seas are what make Hong Kong special and liveable, offering clean water, fresh air and top-class outdoor recreational space. With better marine conservation, our seas could support a thriving fishery, employ thousands of local people and supply fresh seafood. If you fill all that in, this will be lost forever.

Why brownfield sites are a greener option for housing development

Sustainable development is the overarching goal enshrined in HK2030+, the recently released long-term strategic planning study. Protecting our marine and terrestrial natural environment is key, as ­affirmed at the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Summit.

Affordable housing is a tangible goal. Why is a sensible development policy so elusive?

Brownfield sites are ready for ­development. The feasibility of launching a comprehensive brownfield development strategy begins with devising a logical compensation and relocation mechanism.

If we have a formula to resume brownfields then compensation becomes clear and the main hurdle of developing the sites is removed. Let’s face it, the feasibility of developing brownfields rests ultimately on the government’s willingness to pay for them, and convince the public and landowners that this ­approach is in the best interests of society and the environment.

Also, Hongkongers have been denied a chance to have an objective discussion about land supply and housing because a lot of land data is not available.

The government should take the lead in gathering land information and release it to the public. Affordable housing is a tangible goal. Why is a sensible development policy, where humanity and nature can live in harmony, so elusive?

Dr Michael Lau is director of wetlands conservation at WWF-Hong Kong, where Douglas Anderson is chief content officer