As one of the world’s most densely populated places, Hong Kong is always searching for more space to house the thousands priced out of its sky-high property market, raising fears about the survival of its cherished nature reserves.
A minister’s suggestion this week that developing the territory’s green spaces should no longer be off limits drew scorn from environmentalists, adding to concerns that Hong Kong’s natural areas are being eroded by developers.
However, the comments from Hong Kong Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po (陳茂波) also illustrate the problem faced by a city whose 7.1 million inhabitants are squeezed into 30 percent of the 1,100km2 territory. The remaining 70 percent is woodland, wetland, barren land and 24 protected parks, which alone make up 40 percent of the territory.
Colonial-era laws stipulate that parks be reserved for the purposes of education, recreation and nature protection.
“Development of country parks has been unmentionable — if not a taboo — but should it be completely untouchable?” Chan wrote on his blog on Sunday last week.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) has made adequate affordable homes the central plank of government policy as he attempts to cool a soaring market driven by low interest rates and thin supply in the face of an influx of immigrants from China.
Prices have approximately doubled since 2009, putting property ownership out of reach for many. The average price of a small, 37m2 apartment is HK$4.92 million (US$635,000).
The government has also sought to address a yawning gap between rich and poor, and estimates that nearly 170,000 people live in subdivided flats — tiny partitioned units within already cramped residential units. An official advisory body last week said 470,000 residential units needed to be built in the next 10 years to meet demand, with 60 percent to be earmarked for public housing.
Yet despite the space constraints, the idea of using designated green areas for apartments has triggered a backlash against what is perceived as an onslaught of development.
“If you are giving away one inch, you will give away one foot later. There will be serious intrusion [to green areas]. It should not be even thought of,” former senior government official Lam Chiu-ying (林超英) said on a radio program on Tuesday.
Observers also pointed to recent controversies that have sparked debate about how to balance development with nature and heritage protection.
A law limiting the scope of reclamation was enacted in the 1990s following years of protests by conservationists against the shrinking of the world-renowned Victoria Harbour, with some voicing concern that the harbor would eventually resemble a river given the pace of development.
Yet the law has not prevented the demolition of heritage sites along the coastline to make way for redevelopment projects, such as the Queen’s Pier in 2008.
Victoria Park is the city’s largest urban park, but it has steadily shrunk and been concreted over. The latest portion to be sacrificed will make way for a slip road.
A plan to convert the northern Fanling golf course into public housing estates has also drawn ire and concerns that removing the world-class facility would compromise Hong Kong’s global appeal.
A conservation group said the authorities were “out of control” in their search for fresh land. Roy Tam (譚凱邦), chairman of non-profit group Green Sense, said that the government would quickly lose control if it allows incremental development on country parks.