City Weekend

Could burrowing into Hong Kong’s hillsides help tackle its land shortage?

Hong Kong moves one step closer to going underground to access public and private facilities but critics question project’s cost effectiveness

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 October, 2016, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 October, 2016, 10:19pm

In the future, Hongkongers could head underground to go for a swim, park their car, pick out their favourite wine or store essential data, according to a government proposal.

Under the plan, precious land space in nearly 50 rock caverns across the city would be freed for a series of developments – a way to tackle land shortage.

Hong Kong’s steep, hilly terrain tends to limit the growth of urban areas, but the new proposal aims to overcome and make use of such natural constraints, reducing the need to reclaim land.

But some experts were sceptical, and questioned the cost effectiveness of developing such land­scapes. “Why would you want to put a swimming pool costing ten times more in a cavern?” Albert Lai Kwong-tak, a civil engineer and convenor of think-tank The Professional Commons, said.

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The plan for potential uses of caverns was unveiled by the Civil Engineering and Development Department earlier this month when the report was submitted to the Town Planning Board.

The idea of developing the landscapes was first proposed in 2011 in a budget speech by Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, who said the government was looking at developing caverns to free land for other commercial or residential developments.

Though unpopular, utility spaces such as fuel storage depots, refuse transfer facilities, sewage treatment plants and columbariums are top on the list of potential uses for the caverns.

The proposal lists 48 potential sites for cavern development, covering a total area of approximately 4,500 hectares.

The department had cited a number of examples from overseas of caverns being used in unorthodox ways, and aimed at following their success.

However, it stated any potential land use “should be assessed on a case-by-case basis on their sustainability for cavern development in consultation with relevant bureaus [and] departments”.

Some obstacles that may crop up are the need for “considerable” capital investment and a long period of time to implement plans. The proposal admits cavern development alone “could not resolve the imminent problem” of developable land shortage.

Lai believes there are still gaps in the latest draft proposal that need to be addressed. “There is one big omission ... about the cost effectiveness,” he said. “Very few of those sites [in the report] are economical or cost-effective.”

Paul Zimmerman, chief executive officer of NGO Designing Hong Kong, was satisfied with the plan but repeated Lai’s concerns. “Cost effectiveness and impacts and benefits of cavern [development] over other options for each use is what is needed,” he said.

Using caverns for public and private facilities is common in Europe. Examples include the Itakeskus Swimming Hall in Finland, the Gjovik Olympic Cavern Hall in Norway and CERN’s Underground Research Laboratory.

Several cavern projects have already been implemented in Hong Kong. Most notable are the relocation of two salt water service reservoirs to make way for the development of Hong Kong University’s Centennial Campus, and the Stanley Sewage Treatment Works.