Urban planning

Unease at planned reclamation projects in Hong Kong

Urban planning experts are critical of government plans that fail to offer a sound vision and details on how such work will improve people's lives

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 7:08am

For many Hongkongers, reclamation brings the promise of more open space, public facilities and, perhaps, a flat in a good location that finally falls within their price range.

For fisherman Lai Tak-chuen, however, reclamation means only misery. "We can tell the water quality is much poorer, compared to 30 years ago," says Lai, chairman of the Ma Wan Fisheries Rights Association. "The fish are less meaty and the death rate has doubled."

Reclamation has for more than a century been the easy option to cope with growing demand for space in Hong Kong.

While the pace of reclamation was slowed down by a social movement anxious to protect Victoria Harbour, the need to build up a land bank in order to drive down runaway property prices has put the possibility of reclamation outside the harbour back on the agenda.

Among six sites being considered in a recent public consultation exercise are Tsing Yi and Sunny Bay on Lantau Island, which squeeze in the Ma Wan fisheries which have already had to cope with nine years of reclamation work at Disneyland. And fishermen aren't the only ones who are unhappy.

Nine green groups oppose the proposals which have sparked critical discussion among urban planners in universities.

Professors of urban planning say the government's recent consultation exercise failed to offer a sound basis for the plans or detail how the reclaimed land would improve people's lives.

And a review of proposals for previous reclamations and confidential government documents obtained by the South China Morning Post also reveal a litany of promises that have not been realised years after the projects were completed.

"I do not oppose reclamation in general but it can't possibly be done without detailed strategic planning behind it," said Professor Lawrence Lai Wai-chung, an urban planning specialist at the University of Hong Kong and former government planner. "How will it solve our problems? We are not informed."

While Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po wrote in his blog last month that building up a land bank would help avoid a dramatic increase in flat prices and that reclamation is easier than alternative options such as reallocating agricultural land, Lai said the plan could falter without a long-term land-use strategy.

"Will the reclaimed land accommodate the unsatisfied demands for public facilities people aspire to, like museums and columbariums? Will it help resolve the problem of small houses in the New Territories?" Lai said, referring to the controversial policy of giving male indigenous villagers in the New Territories land for homes.

"Even if the reclaimed land is not given a specific use, the vision should be outlined."

The six sites the government put forward for reclamation in the second stage of its consultation last month include sites off Lung Kwu Tan at Tuen Mun, Siu Ho Wan on Lantau and Ma Liu Shui in Sha Tin, as well as the southwestern side of Tsing Yi and Sunny Bay. The reclamations would range from 30 hectares to 300 hectares.

The most eye-catching proposal is for an artificial island measuring between 1,400 hectares and 2,400 hectares between Lantau and Hong Kong Island.

Unlike past reclamation proposals advocated by planners, the consultation is being led by the Civil Engineering and Development Department, responsible for executing public projects.

"We hope the public will agree on every proposed location," department director Hon Chi-keung said this month. He said the government had yet to come up with detailed uses for the sites.

A 34-page consultation document, dominated by pictures, says Lung Kwu Tan, surrounded by at least 12 polluting industrial facilities, will "provide land for facilities to meet community needs". A previous study on Siu Ho Wan, dating to 2007, identified that area as a logistics park while Sunny Bay has been identified as a business park, although officials have been unable to explain their rationale for that idea.

The future of southwest Tsing Yi and Ma Liu Shui is clearer, with the government arguing that they could provide an extension to a container terminal and a residential area with community facilities respectively. Two seemingly incompatible uses have been suggested for the artificial island - it could either accommodate industrial uses to make way for other development in urban areas, or become a new residential community.

"I don't think these general statements are convincing enough," says Professor Ng Mee-kam, an urban planning scholar at Chinese University. The reclamation is not without costs. It will lead to irreversible damage to our environment."

In contrast, past consultations on reclamation in the late 1980s and early 1990s - led by the Planning, Environment and Lands Bureau - were backed up with detailed planning, landscaping proposals and financial studies. When former governor David Wilson announced his Metroplan for urban areas in 1987, reclaimed land was described as "solution space", to be used to reduce population density in areas such as Sham Shui Po and Yau Ma Tei in West Kowloon.

More details were found in a confidential planning report in 1993 to support Metroplan. It said living conditions in Yau Ma Tei, Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po were so poor that 43 per cent of its population were living in places such as bed spaces and cocklofts. Of those, 45 per cent were living in rooftop structures.

The government of the time envisioned taking an active role in redevelopment of dilapidated private housing after its financial analyses found that 90 per cent of potential urban renewal sites would not prove financially viable for private sector projects.

West Kowloon was the largest reclamation site proposed during that period, covering 340 hectares. Other key sites include southeast Kowloon, with 300 hectares and Green Island, covering more than 100 hectares.

The stated intention was to provide abundant affordable housing and rehouse residents displaced by renewal projects, while enhancing Hong Kong's status as an international port, tourist destination and centre of light manufacturing industries.

The government proposed a major urban park for each of the seven districts identified in the Metroplan, totalling 390 hectares. A further 15 interlinked urban fringe parks would be built totalling 1,000 hectares

At the end, Metroplan would "bring about a better organised, more efficient and more desirable place in which to live and work".

But the reality proved somewhat different. "Many dreams outlined in Metroplan have eventually fallen apart," Ng said. "Much of the new land in West Kowloon has ended up with the city's most luxurious flats. But at least, they were well planned."

Of the 15 urban fringe parks proposed, only the two in Tsing Yi and Jordan Valley were created and their size was less than one-tenth of the original scale.

Ng fears problems ahead if reclamation is allowed to go ahead without a clear vision and details such as what kind of housing will be built, how much open space there will be and whether the government is basing its plans on reliable projections of the city's population.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's government based its plans to build up a land bank on projections from the Census and Statistics Department, which predicted that the city's population would rise to 8.89 million by 2041.

But when Leung banned mainland women without a local partner from giving birth in the city, the department slashed the projection by 420,000. Yet there was no change to the government's mission to find 4,500 hectares of land for development, of which between 1,800 and 3,130 hectares would come from reclamation.

Ng fears reclamation will only serve to reinforce the injustices developing in the city. "The government isn't giving us any direction. In the end, the reclaimed land might still be occupied with walled buildings and shopping malls that are monopolised by large developers," she warned.

Lai urged the government to resume as soon as possible the high-level strategic planning that was left to research units in individual government departments with little bargaining power after 1997. The last citywide planning study, HK2030, conducted by the Planning Department, was completed in 2007.

A Planning Department spokeswoman said sub-regional planning was discontinued as the HK2030 study considered that the character of the city's sub-regions was diminishing, and that sufficient land had been identified to meet requirements up to 2030. She did not say if such planning would be resumed in the face of an acute shortage of land identified by the government.

But talk of such shortages of land is little compensation to those living in Lung Kwu Tan. Home to 2,000 people in five villages, the area is surrounded by power stations, landfill sites and a sludge treatment facility. An incinerator is planned nearby.

They fear that tall blocks of flats built on reclaimed land will further worsen an air quality crisis they believe is severely affecting public health.

"We have more villagers getting cancer. The youngest is just over 30. [Although] we have yet to establish the link between the industrial activities and the prevalence of the sickness," village representative Lau Wai-ping said, adding that 90 per cent of villagers oppose further reclamation.

To many like Lau, reclamation will never be the panacea it is painted as. The absence of a clear vision from the government only deepens their concerns.