Space-starved Hongkongers could soon be heading to sewage plants to enjoy fresh air and greenery, under officials’ plans to turn the usually avoided sites into oases for fun and recreation. For a start, the Drainage Supplies Department plans to turn about four hectares around its Shek Wu Hui and Yuen Long plants into promenades, landscaped gardens and birdwatching and ecology parks. It hopes to do more in other areas, and make a difference to residents of many urban districts deprived of green open spaces. “There are two ways of doing things,” director for drainage services Edwin Tong Ka-hung said. “We can build everything, erect barriers, not let anybody in, or we can open them up for multiple uses.” The department runs 67 sewage treatment plants across the city. The eight major ones – Shek Wu Hui, Yuen Long, Tai Po, Sha Tin, Sai Kung, Siu Ho Wan, Stonecutters Island and Stanley – cover about 80 hectares of outdoor area, most of it fenced off or inaccessible to the public. “We will be applying the concept to all future large-scale sewage plants, including the ones in caverns,” Tong said. Improved anti-odour technologies had reduced issues of smell, he added. Some projects are already completed or in the pipeline. The roof of a fan room above an underground storm water storage tank completed in 2016 at Happy Valley racecourse is now an artificial hill and public park. Improvement works at Kwun Tong Sewage Pumping Station will add a landscaped deck over it, which will be open to the public. Tong said he hoped the efforts would make expansion or development plans for utilities more palatable to the public. “We’ve learned from overseas examples,” he said. “Along the River Seine in Paris, there’s a sewage plant but if you pass by on a boat you would never know from the appearance as it is covered in parks and greenery.” The department will seek funding next year to convert about two hectares at the Shek Wu Hui plant into a green public space as part of upcoming plans to double the plant’s capacity. When completed, it will have a birdwatching area, a promenade and an ecology park. Event spaces could be leased out for public activities too. The department is working with a non-government organisation to ask people living in the area what they would like included in their new park space. Two hectares at the upcoming eight-hectare Yuen Long effluent plant, near the ecologically sensitive Deep Bay, will also be opened up. Ideas being considered include parks, recreational areas and a birdwatching zone. Rooftops could be used as a solar farm. The park proposals for the Shek Wu Hui and Yuen Long plants account for just 1 per cent of project costs and the department intends on managing the public areas itself, rather than handing them over to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), which runs most parks. Kathy Ip Tsz-ying, secretary general of the Hong Kong Public Space Initiative, an NGO, welcomed the plans and hoped they would get more government departments thinking about ideas for community engagement. But she expressed concern about the drainage department’s lack of experience in managing public spaces. “A big or nice public space may not always be a good public space,” she said. “It’s all about management. If no one uses it, if people can’t use it or don’t like what they’ve done with it, it defeats the purpose.” Man-made island for landfill plan to make space for Hong Kong housing Ip said she hoped the department would keep the needs of local residents in mind when designing the spaces and urged it to consider allowing an NGO to help manage them. “Since this is a new concept for the department, they might as well try out new management too,” she said. Carine Lai Man-yin, an urban planning researcher at the Civic Exchange think tank, welcomed the department’s initiatives as an opportunity to allow more creativity in using government facilities for public enjoyment. She liked the idea of the drainage authorities managing the new public areas as “it could be an opportunity to have more diversity in our open spaces”. The department also would not be subject to the LCSD’s rules and restrictions, she added. The government has been working to provide a minimum of two square metres of open space per person in urban areas, although a new planning blueprint suggests increasing this to 2.5 square metres. In that respect, Hong Kong is behind other Asian cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore, whose residents get an average of 5.8 square metres to 7.6 square metres, according to a study by Civic Exchange. The think tank found last year that more than half of Hongkongers did not have access to the recreational space outlined in the blueprint, with crowded Mong Kok having just 0.6 square metres of greenery per person.