Building on peripheries of Hong Kong’s country parks: solution to housing crisis, or paradise lost?

Officials are eyeing two peripheral areas of the city’s cherished country parks as sites for new housing, but detractors say such development will spread like a virus through some of Hong Kong’s most pristine natural environment

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 10:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 11:32pm

The rocky steps are steep and slippery after a night’s rain. Much of the track is hidden in lush bushes and tall grass. Along the route a stream trickles through the undergrowth.

“Trail! Trail!” echo the cries through the woods, followed by a man and woman emerging from a dense screen of foliage, both running in steady, vigorous strides.

The site is Sugar Loaf Peak, perched on the fringes of Hong Kong’s magnificent Ma On Shan Country Park. It borders a public housing estate named Shui Chuen O, meaning the place by the spring water.

The slope is one of two peripheral areas of Hong Kong’s cherished country parks where the government is considering building housing – an unprecedented move towards development on some of the city’s most pristine natural environment. A study of the site is under way, along with one into another space near the entrance to Tai Lam Tunnel inside Tai Lam Country Park.

Together the two areas add up to 40 hectares on which officials are pondering the feasibility of building public housing and non-profit elderly care homes.

Hong Kong’s huge country parks are a potential source of land for the space-starved city. The government is looking to plug a predicted shortage of 1,200 hectares to quench the thirst for new homes and other development in the world’s most expensive property market.

However, for the three women and four men scaling the hill on the hot and humid Sunday of August 19, construction near Sugar Loaf Peak would mean a paradise lost.

“Development on country park peripheries will be like a virus,” 58-year-old retiree Leslie Cheung said. “It won’t stop there. It will creep deeper and deeper into the parks. Eventually, the deepest areas will become peripheries and there will be no nature left. We will forever lose our breathing space.”

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The seven are all members of running club Sek Kong Hash House Harriers, one of Hong Kong’s 14 Hash House Harriers groups.

“Hashing”, as the sport is known, is derived from an old British school game, hares and hounds. One or a few forerunners known as hares lay a trail with chalk or flour marks for the remainder of the group to follow. Alcoholic drinks often await the runners as a prize at the end of the trail.

Avid hasher and former police officer Guy Shirra said there were about 2,000 members across the city’s 14 clubs. Up to 50 took part in each run, he estimated.

“Every run will involve a country park. I can say that for sure, because they are the best running areas,” Shirra said. “We like to run in the countryside and we like to run on natural trails.”

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He has run at Sugar Loaf Peak several times, and said he was “really surprised” the government had chosen the area for possible housing development.

“It’s extremely steep and it heads up to a mountain peak, so it’s a very odd thing to do,” he added.

Tanny Wan Yuen-ching, the “hare” of the August 19 hash, said the government had created the impression the two sites contained nothing of value by describing them as “periphery”.

“In fact, there are many plants native to Hong Kong growing there [at Sugar Loaf Peak], such as wild orchids,” she said. “There are also many creeks. It’s very beautiful.”

Lam Kam-ying, another hasher, said officials should instead look to develop the more than 700 hectares of damaged agricultural land across the city classed as brownfield, which remained unused and unplanned.

“There is a lot of land in Hong Kong with no planning at all,” she said. “Developing country parks instead of using those places is completely unnecessary.”

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The Housing Society, a non-profit organisation which is the city’s second-largest provider of public housing, is in charge of the study into the two sites.

A spokeswoman said the researchers would look into the recreational, ecological, landscape and aesthetic value of the spaces, as well as their development potential and the technical feasibility of construction.

“We have received some valuable opinions from the public ... and all these views will be placed under consideration in one go,” she said. “We reiterate that [the society] does not hold any predetermined position on the issue.”

Greg Wong Chak-yan, vice-chairman of the Task Force on Land Supply, an official panel in charge of an ongoing public consultation exercise on sourcing more land, said: “One of the country parks’ most important functions is recreation. Recreational value must be taken into consideration. There’s no doubt about it.”

But he believed that any housing estates built on the two sites could incorporate hiking or running trails into their designs that would link up with running routes elsewhere in the country parks.

The five-month consultation on land supply will end late next month. Development in country parks is one of its 18 proposals. Other options include reclamation, developing brownfield sites, and tapping into the vast farmland reserves of private property developers.