Thu, Jan 25, 2018 - Page 9 News List

The big dig: High cost of land is forcing Hong Kong into caverns

By Benjamin Haas  /  The Guardian

There is a particular bridge in Hong Kong that offers spectacular views: the mouth of a river on one side, and near-identical rows of white apartment blocks and mountains on the other.

No matter where you look, though, you cannot escape the stench of sewage. It wafts up from the treatment plant at Sha Tin, originally built on the territory’s fringe, but now very much part of Hong Kong, as relentless development has pushed the territory outward.

However, soon there will be no need to escape: The notorious smell will vanish, as part of Hong Kong’s ambitious plan to move unsightly public works underground.

The Hong Kong government is encouraging a host of businesses to build new facilities deep beneath the earth, inside the mountains that have caused the former British colony to become one of the world’s densest metropolises.

Officials have suggested that logistics facilities, data centers, reservoirs, laboratories and even swimming pools are all suitable for subterranean development.

The government has released a master plan for potential sites — a program that recently won an award from the International Tunnelling Association in Paris — and is working to move other public utilities underground.

“In Hong Kong, the key driver [of cave development] is the land issue,” chief town planner Edward Lo said. “Only about 24 percent of the land can be developed in Hong Kong, everything else is hilly areas that aren’t cost-effective to build on. So we want to turn this constraint into an opportunity.”

Hong Kong has the most expensive housing market in the world, with median property prices more than 18 times median household incomes.

Since British colonial rule began in the mid-19th century, the territory has relied on reclaimed land, given the hilly terrain, and is plagued by property cartels and static government housing policy.

The master plan could free as much as 1,000 hectares in the land-starved territory. The sewage treatment plant in Sha Tin is to be the largest project to date and is an attempt to showcase the benefits.

While building deep underground is not a new idea — Norway built its entire national archives in a cavern in Oslo, and Helsinki boasts an underground swimming pool that can accommodate 1,000 people — Hong Kong has taken it several steps further.

The plan lists 48 potential underground and hillside sites for new caverns, eliminating the need for companies to locate their own.

Hong Kong also already has several projects built inside hills, including a waste transfer station, an explosives depot, a reservoir and metro stations. Hong Kong University moved a reservoir into a nearby hill in 2007 to expand its campus.

Officials hope underground tunnels can also accommodate records storage, science labs, wine cellars and car parks.

“Caverns are a good way to deal with nimby-type facilities,” said Tony Ho, chief geological engineer at the Civil Engineering and Development Department, adding that residents are less likely to object to unsightly projects if they are buried below ground. “If we can put suitable facilities inside caverns, then we can release precious surface land for other uses: For example, housing.”

However, critics have said that caverns are no quick fix for the territory’s land problems.

Hong Kong needs about 9,000 hectares for housing development, the Our Hong Kong Foundation think tank said.

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