Hunt for homes threatens Hong Kong’s greenery

By Dennis Chong  /  AFP, HONG KONG

Sun, Sep 15, 2013 - Page 14

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.

“Country parks are one of the few places people can go on their weekends besides shopping malls. It is not rational to take them away,” Tam said.

Some critics say Hong Kong’s land supply issues are a myth and that the shortage is a result of years of mismanagement. They say the city has abundant shrubland, woodland and open rural areas that could become readily available sites for development, much of which are instead being used as storage or illegal dumping sites.

Large portions of land in Hong Kong’s New Territories are locked up by a colonial period law stipulating that all indigenous male villagers receive a village house for free. Local media have estimated that nearly 1,000 hectares of land is reserved for this purpose.

Sonny Lo (盧兆興), a social scientist at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said the government is set to run into more problems as the community becomes increasingly environmentally conscious.

“From the sustainable development perspective, the government should not encroach upon green spaces now highly cherished by a community that is increasingly aware of the importance of sustainable development,” he said.