Hong Kong property developments deploy landscaping and other “green” features as additional – and inevitably contrived – “luxury” selling points. The insistent fantasy that a few ill-chosen trees and shrubs somehow transform ugly, badly planned, grotesquely overpriced boxes into the last word in elegance, style and sophistication should defeat the talents of even the most hard-bitten PR and marketing professionals. But it wasn’t always this way.
Until recent decades, people lived much closer to the natural world, and an understanding of life’s less aesthetic realities carried over into local approaches to landscaping and garden design. Manure stinks are as vital to any successful garden as the fragrance of flowers, and the ripe smell of well-prepared compost was – and should be – an accepted part of horticultural life. Well into the 1960s, the Repulse Bay Hotel trucked in horse manure from the Jockey Club stables, to magnificent seasonal effect. Trees would be selected with an eye towards the effect five or 10 years in the future, not simply for maximum impact at an opening event. Adequate spacing to allow for growth was also factored in, which implicitly recognised that for the first few years, a bare appearance would predominate.
These days, mass plantings aim for an instantly mature look. Additional profit for landscape architects, nurseries and tree suppliers can also be gouged, as large specimens have to be ordered to telescope the effect of several years in-ground growing time into a few days or weeks. Developers (whatever their sales and promotional material suggests) spend as little as they can get away with. Plants are chosen for their ability to survive – and, if possible, thrive – in Hong Kong’s shallow, poorly prepared soils, with minimal maintenance. Ultimately, though, it hardly matters. Most buyers of Hong Kong’s luxury developments wouldn’t know the Flame of the Forest from Blake’s Bauhinia, other than – perhaps – to vaguely differentiate between “that red flower in the summer months” and “the purple one that appears as white on the post-handover flag”.
Historically, government initiatives have been little better; Hong Kong’s early municipal plantings – such as they were – existed only to be looked upon, and not smelled, touched or actively enjoyed. Lawns were surrounded by metal railings designed to prevent anyone from walking on the grass they enclosed. Interwar photographs of Central’s Statue Square area, first laid out in the early 20th century, make this observation plain.
This look-but-don’t-touch mentality has continued into the present day; any casual visitor to Hong Kong’s larger public parks – Victoria Park or Sham Shui Po Park, for instance – is immediately struck by the concrete and railings that exist only to separate people and plants. Every day, across Hong Kong, legions of ageing workers – otherwise unemployable due to poor literacy and an absence of modern job skills – rake up, bag and dispose of leaves that should be allowed to compost on site, and hack and slash established plantings into unfeasible, bureaucratically determined shapes, with minimal or no training and oversight.
Hong Kong has much to learn from its neighbours. Guangdong’s superbly maintained public gardens are perennially popular with residents and visitors. Shenzhen’s magnificent municipal spaces leave Hong Kong’s paltry efforts in the dust. In fairness, Shenzhen started from scratch in the late '70s, but serious planning and effort went into urban design from the outset. A humble willingness to learn from best practice elsewhere was key; Shenzhen sent officials to Singapore to see what had been achieved there to stunning effect, and judiciously modified what worked to suit southern China’s subtropical, typhoon-prone and intermittently dry environment.