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.
The caverns would only free about 1,000 hectares and then only if existing structures are moved underground.
“This only solves a small problem,” foundation deputy executive director Stephen Wong said. “What else are we doing? Where are the other innovative ideas for creating much more land? We don’t oppose using caverns, but we’re saying it’s technically difficult, it’s costly, very time-consuming and only a few hectares will be released with each project.”
Planning to move the sewage treatment plant to a cave began in 2012 and construction is not scheduled to start until next year.
It is to take a further nine years to build the facility and up to two years of tests, bringing the total project time to about 18 years.
“Because this project is so big, we can’t afford to have any failure, so we’ll need at least a year of testing to make sure the facilities in the cavern work before we release the land [at the original site],” Ho said.
Costs can also be a burden. Relocating the plant is projected to cost about US$84 million, and similar schemes can amount to as much as US$390 per cubic meter to build. Construction costs are typically two times more expensive than building above ground.
However, despite the high upfront expenditure, caverns can benefit from lower maintenance costs than traditional buildings and never need to be torn down.
They also could reduce energy consumption. Cooler, more consistent temperatures underground mean less need for air conditioning, especially during Hong Kong’s notoriously hot summers, when the mercury rarely dips below 30°C during the day.
In a bid to give the project a friendly face, officials have rolled out a cartoon marmot, an animal known for its burrowing skills, and hosted a series of public education events.
Given Hong Kong’s housing shortages — and the lengths people will go to to get a bed for the night — Ho and Lo say that there are no plans for people to live in caverns.
“We won’t recommend housing in caverns, but we will try to put a host of other facilities underground so we can release surface land for housing,” Lo said. “We still think above ground would be a better built environment for living.”
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