Why Hong Kong is scared of trees: the fight for urban forestry in city that sees them as a threat, not an enhancement
With the responsibility for planting new trees in the hands of civil servants and a fixation on the danger of falling trees, is it any wonder the city lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to ‘greening’?
The Chinese city of Liuzhou has begun construction of a pioneering “forest city”, designed by Italian architect Stefano Boeri, in which 40,000 trees will create a green urban paradise for residents.
The project, in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in the country’s southwest, is only one example of the determination of cities across China to embrace what is known as “green infrastructure”, but experts say it is unlikely anything similar will happen in Hong Kong in the near future.
“In Western cities and [in China], green infrastructure is now an established concept, but Hong Kong only does grey infrastructure,” says Patrick Lau Hing-tat, chairman of EADG (Earth Asia Design Group), a landscape architect and councillor for Eastern district.
It’s universally acknowledged that trees, shrubs and plants are essential components of a modern city. They absorb carbon dioxide, improve air quality, filter roadside pollution, slow down storm water run-off, enhance urban aesthetics, promote ecological biodiversity, dampen noise, provide shade, mitigate urban heat island effect and counteract the general stress of city life. Yet, despite the obvious benefits for its residents, Hong Kong has failed to embrace green infrastructure or the vision of the urban forest.
“We haven’t even started yet,” says Lau, who employs about 50 staff in his Hong Kong headquarters in Causeway Bay, adding that 80 per cent of his green infrastructure projects are in China.
He says rapidly growing Chinese cities attract migrants from rural parts of the country, creating a demand for trees and green spaces. Local officials often regard green infrastructure as a quick way of making a positive impact and raising land values at a relatively low cost, compared to hard infrastructure projects such as bridges, railways and tunnels.
By contrast, in Hong Kong there are distinct signs of mass hylophobia. You are more likely to meet a tree hater than a tree hugger, and Hong Kong media is more likely to report on the deadly dangers of trees than their multiple benefits as an eco-service in a polluted and overheated city.
In July this year, headlines were made when a tree collapsed on four passing vehicles outside a public housing estate in Fanling. In April, it was reported that the bereaved family of a pregnant woman, fatally injured by a falling tree in Mid-Levels in 2014, is suing the owners of the property where the tree was located.
Hong Kong is probably unique in regarding the tree as a dangerous threat requiring careful management and risk assessment. Local urban planners and landscape architects say that instead of a bold plan of urban forestry, the government has settled on a muddled and limp policy of “greening”.
The worst examples include fake flowers painted on the plywood hoardings surrounding construction sites, potted plastic plants and even AstroTurf. One expert, who asked not to be named, complained that Hong Kong’s roadside planting resembled “leftover salad” and advocated that the whole of Tamar Park should be “ripped up” and redesigned as a mini country park, overgrowing with lush and diverse indigenous vegetation.
“The term greening has become so superficial that we now prefer to talk about urban forestry, which is about designing and managing a natural system of trees, plants, shrubs, insects and animals within a city, just as you would in a country park,” says Lau. He claims government departments have no understanding of the basic concepts of green infrastructure or urban forestry.
“You can interview 10 civil servants and I can guarantee you, nine will not have the first clue about the idea of urban forestry,” he says.
There is no shortage of information, schemes and awards with regard to what officials call “greening Hong Kong”. Government says it has been incorporating roof greening designs since 2001 and developing Greening Master Plans since 2004. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department runs a Green Hong Kong campaign and a Best Landscape Award. The housing authority runs a scheme called Green Delight in Estates and claims to plant one tree for every 15 flats built. Despite the hyperbole, the statistics are not encouraging.
According to government figures, in 2016/17, the number of trees planted in the city was less than one third of the total planted 10 years ago. Lau says the fundamental problem is that the entire greening and urban forestry project is run by government department managers, not designers or architects. The emphasis is always on engineering and ease of maintenance, not grand visions of green eco-cities, because “no one wants the extra maintenance burden”.
A look at the Civil Engineering and Development Department’s online examples of its “green master plan” for Central district can hardly be described as inspirational. It includes a meticulously pruned ornamental hedge, about 75cm high, which lines the sun-baked pedestrian walkway from the Central ferry piers to the IFC mall.
Just over two years ago, Deborah Kuh Wen-gee was recruited from outside government to head the Greening, Landscape and Tree Management Section of the Development Bureau.
A respected landscape architect, she was to be the much-needed breath of fresh air and champion of a new and strategic government policy on greening, landscaping and tree management. She talks with enthusiasm about the 400 indigenous species of tree in Hong Kong that are rarely seen in the city, and the need for “sexy diverse vegetation”, on the roads and streets, which is the “front line” of the battle for a green city.
She also thinks there are lots of misconception about greening.
“Not all green is good,” Kuh says. She justifies the drastic drop in the numbers of new trees being planted, saying that quality and the correct location of tree planting is more important than superficially impressive statistics.
“Everyone thinks that by planting more trees, we will get more shade, but big-leaf and big-branch trees might trap humidity,” she says.
Kuh also appears to harbour frustration about Hong Kong’s obsession with preserving old trees regardless of their natural life cycle. She says many of these old trees planted during the colonial era, are “aggressive alien species”, plagued by brown root disease, which “devastates our green landscape”.
“If we can remove these old and diseased trees we can plant something new and indigenous,” she says, but this ambition often puts her in conflict with local neighbourhoods and green groups. The tree protection lobby has some vocal advocates and government has already identified some 500 “old and valuable trees” that are afforded special protection.
Ironically, in a city plagued by tree phobia, it is very difficult to obtain approval to remove trees, even dead ones.
Kuh’s section is a policy body and it is not part of its remit to head into the city with shovels, planting trees and shrubs; that’s the job of government departments. However, without an inspirational example of what can be achieved with urban forestry, it’s almost impossible for them to ignite the public’s imagination. Perhaps with that in mind, they have initiated a collaborative project with the faculty of design and environment at the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong.
The project leader, landscape architecture lecturer Michael Thomas, says that two large traffic islands, one in Wylie Road, Kowloon and the other on the North Lantau Highway in Tung Chung, have been approved for urban forestry design. The site in Wylie Road will be a subtropical rain garden that will not only offer cosmetic greening but will be an effective road drainage ecosystem.
“The indigenous vegetation will take the rainwater and add it naturally to the groundwater system, not into concrete storm-water pipes that pour the water straight into the sea, together with all the local pollutants,” he says.
It’s very small in scale, no time frame has yet been agreed for the work, and Thomas, who has been in Hong Kong for more than a decade, is struck by the local tree phobia.
“There is a problem here that we fixate on trees and the risk of them falling over,” he says.
Even the catalyst for the creation of Kuh’s department was a government report, “People, Trees, Harmony”, which was produced in response to a tragic accident in Stanley when a teenage student was killed by a falling tree in 2008.
Tree management, tree complaints, tree risk avoidance and the notion that trees are a deadly threat to public safety remain at the heart of government thinking.
Lau has a vision of the country parks “extending as green fingers” along streets and pedestrian walkways into to the heart of the city, with natural vegetation providing shade, improved air quality, cooler air and, maybe, even higher land values. Compared to large-scale infrastructure projects, the costs are tiny, the benefits for all Hongkongers would be enormous and Kuh agrees with the principles.
“Fundamentally, we are about reintroducing nature to the city,” she says. But for that simple vision to be realised, Hong Kong needs to overcome its deep-rooted tree phobia.