Hong Kong’s trees are at risk – more from people who don’t want them in urban areas than from typhoons

Ian Brownlee worries about tree replacement in the aftermath of Typhoon Mangkhut. The government needs to rethink how to plant storm-resistant trees, and to overcome emotional public resistance to the idea of urban trees

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2018, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2018, 7:57pm

Trees are living things that grow and change and eventually die and fall. They are important to a dense city like Hong Kong and are a vital antidote to our masses of concrete and hard surfaces. They are a major part of our soft infrastructure – they green, they shade, they provide oxygen and they cool the city from the ever-increasing urban heat island effect. A concentrated effort has been made to green the city and plant trees, especially over the past 30 years. 

Typhoon Mangkhut was merciless, felling tens of thousands of trees. Fortunately, they did not kill anyone this time, though there have been isolated cases of death from a falling tree or broken tree limb.

Still, the trees hit by the typhoon made their presence felt everywhere – blocking roads, falling on buildings and cars, blocking trails, obstructing footpaths and parks. Everywhere, there were fallen trees. Weeks later, most roads, like the city, are back to normal, but tonnes of tree debris are still lying along roads where they don’t obstruct movement.

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Although many trees also fell in forest areas, that is not significant. Unless they block access to our country parks, those fallen trees are just part of the natural cycle and should be left as they are.

What worries me, however, is what will happen to our urban trees. These are our most important trees and already there are rather emotional reactions against having trees in the city. Should these feelings grow, there is a real risk that people will not want trees in their neighbourhoods or along our roads, which is where we need them most.

Thankfully, the chief executive’s recent policy agenda offers a ray of hope – specifically, a series of steps under the heading of “Urban Forestry”.

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Many of the trees that fell were 30 to 40 years old and reaching their full size. It amazes me how huge trees that provided abundant shade could have grown to the size they did when they had such small root balls in cramped tree pits. But, by the same token, it isn’t surprising that the roots couldn’t anchor the trees in fierce winds.

To my mind, this raises many questions. Should we leave more space around trees so they can grow properly and safely? Are we planting trees that grow too big to fit the allocated space? Should we choose trees that are more storm-resistant, in anticipation of a future with more severe storms? Is there a better alternative for the hectares of fallen trees now stored at Kai Tak, than sending them to landfills?

The policy agenda sets out a number of answers to some, but not all, of these problems. It proposes measures such as raising “public awareness on urban forestry, including life cycle planning and life expectancy for trees and the concept of ‘Right Tree, Right Place’,” and studying “the application of smart technologies to detect the health and structural conditions of trees more effectively”.

Urban forestry issues will probably get lost amid the clamour for more housing, more land and reclamation. But Mangkhut has surely amplified the urgency surrounding tree issues in Hong Kong.

Within this context, there needs to be a rational assessment of the whys, hows and what-nexts with regard to the storm’s impact on trees in the city, as well as immediate action.

The government should set up a new task force as soon as possible, tapping the expertise of people inside and outside government who work with trees and have dealt with tree losses on a huge scale, as well as academics who can provide impartial and useful research on species and design changes. Action must be taken to deal with tree issues sooner than originally intended.

If not, our trees will be more at risk from uninformed, negative and emotional responses than whatever havoc Mangkhut and other typhoons can wreak.

Ian Brownlee is managing director of the planning and development consultancy Masterplan Limited