Tue, Jan 08, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Expensive Hong Kong artificial island plan meets local resistance

Advocates for the plan say it is the only way to create enough land for housing and build a smarter city, but detractors have said it ignores Hong Kongers’ immediate needs, while pleasing China

By Natalie Lung  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

Hong Kong, the world’s least affordable property market, has a plan to tackle its housing crisis: It plans to build four artificial islands equal to about one-fifth the size of Manhattan that could house more than 1 million people.

The government-backed plan to create a gleaming property and commercial hub has been tried before — Palm Jumeirah, the palm-shaped archipelago in Dubai filled with luxury developments; Forest City, a housing project for 700,000 people in Malaysia; and Jurong Island in Singapore, which houses chemical and energy facilities.

Yet building artificial islands in Hong Kong has a number of vexing complications, starting with the price tag.

The project would cost at least an eye-popping HK$500 billion (US$63.81 billion) and the tab could double, the South China Morning Post reported.

There are also technical and political challenges — a poll in November last year showed that 49 percent of the public opposes the plan — as well as massive environmental costs, although the government says it has chosen a less ecologically sensitive area for development.

Hong Kong’s plan to create islands in open waters shows the length that governments will go to add housing in expensive, space-starved cities. The rising threat from climate change is also giving governments reason to create “smart and low-carbon” cities, which Hong Kong’s government is planning to achieve for the new islands with renewable energy, green transportation and a higher greening ratio.

Yet with unpredictable weather events, as highlighted in the US’ National Climate Assessment report in November last year, there has been debate over whether potential energy efficiencies are enough to compensate for the massive environmental disruption caused.

“The entire environment would be disrupted,” said Patrick Yeung (楊松潁), ocean conservation manager for the Hong Kong chapter of the World Wildlife Fund, citing potential damage to the marine food chain when microorganisms and other fish are uprooted as a result of reclamation.

“Is there really no other option than to reclaim land?” he asked. “That should be our first consideration.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) last year pitched the plan — called the Lantau Tomorrow Vision — as part of her annual policy address and it is core to her efforts to increase the city’s land supply.

The plan for 1,700 hectare of islands in the city’s central waters, between Lantau Island and Hong Kong Island, would add up to 400,000 housing units for an estimated 1.1 million people starting in 2032.

The plan has run into some early public opposition. Nearly 6,000 people took to the streets in protest three days after Lam announced the proposal and it also became one of the key themes of an annual New Year’s Day protest.

The concept has clear benefits for China’s government, which controls Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” doctrine. Lam envisions Lantau, the city’s biggest outlying island, as becoming the third core business district and an “aerotropolis,” given its proximity to the international airport and the recently opened Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which serves as a key link to the Greater Bay Area.

The bridge is part of a plan by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to transform the region into a trillion-dollar economy rivaling Silicon Valley.

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