Sports and environment experts together with district councillors are calling for a review of a three-year-old policy under which at least nine natural turf pitches across the city will be replaced with artificial grass.
Residents of Happy Valley are also campaigning against the move, which will lead to the area losing most of its natural pitches. Despite being more durable and cheaper to maintain, the artificial turf is said to be more likely to injure players while also posing public health risks and raising temperatures. "The natural pitches are something precious to the valley as it helps to cool down our living environment," said Happy Valley Residents' Association chairman Patrick Lau Hing-tat, who is planning a protest with residents. "Filling the area with asphalt and plastic carpet is a very bad move."
The Home Affairs Bureau decided in 2010 to triple the number of top-quality artificial pitches across the city from 11 to 34 by 2015 after a study on ways to boost football development.
The consultant said fake grass, which lasts about five years, can withstand 270 matches a month, compared with 60 for a grass pitch that costs HK$336,000 a season to maintain.
Residents are now trying to protect the remaining five natural grass pitches at the Happy Valley racecourse from the government's plan to convert three of them to artificial turf. This means only two of the 11 pitches managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department at the racecourse will have real grass by 2015. Six have been converted.
Overall, the bureau plans to convert at least nine natural grass pitches, upgrade five old artificial pitches and build four new artificial pitches, to satisfy the demand for football pitches and reduce operational costs.
There are now 30 artificial soccer pitches out of 77, but the proportion could rise above 40 per cent within a few years.
In a reply to inquiries from the South China Morning Post, the department said it had converted two natural grass pitches in Shek Kip Mei Park and Morse Park in the past two years. It said seven more were under way, without giving their locations. It also said pitches 2, 3 and 4 at Happy Valley would be converted after drainage works are done by 2015.
But head of physical education at Baptist University, Chung Pak-kwong, said the hotter and harder artificial pitches did more harm to football players than natural turf. "It would be worrying if the number increases to more than half," he said.
The fake grass is banned in some cities because rubber particles used in it were found to contain heavy metals.
Greening specialist Professor Jim Chi-yung said the natural grass with soil also absorbed heat and air pollutants, which was particularly important to a valley close to crowded Causeway Bay.
Wan Chai District Council vice-chairman Stephen Ng Kam-chun criticised the government for not consulting the full council.
Former lawmaker Lau Sau-shing said the government also did not inform legislators of the potential risks of artificial pitches.
The Home Affairs Bureau declined to comment on the policy.