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Friday, June 16, 2017, 16:59
Escape from the concrete jungle
By Dara Wang
Friday, June 16, 2017, 16:59 By Dara Wang

As the government considers opening up the city’s parklands to build public housing, experts are weighing options likely to cause the least damage to the environment. Dara Wang reports.

(INFOGraphic: Dong Kai, DARA WANG, honey Tsang, Mok Kwok-Cheong / China Daily)

In the densely populated metropolis of Hong Kong, 40 percent of land is marked as protected natural areas. Hong Kong ranks fourth — after Venezuela, Slovenia and Bhutan — in the list of economies with the largest share of land dedicated to protected natural areas per square hectare, according to this year’s World Economic Forum report. That also makes Hong Kong the leader in proportion of protected areas of all developed economies worldwide. Hong Kong’s country parks are home to more than 80 percent of the city’s amphibian, butterfly, dragonfly, and reptile species as well as 70 percent of the city’s terrestrial mammal species.  

HK has 24 country parks accouting for 40% of the total land area

The visionaries who designed these parks did not do so solely with an eye on protecting nature, says Wong Fook-yee, former assistant director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD). These rolling stretches of green were also meant to encourage citizens with limited means to step out of their tiny apartments and get some exercise and fresh air.    

The immediate trigger, says Wong, who managed country parks for almost 30 years, was social distrubance of 1966-1967. The Commission of Inquiry that looked into the matter suggested giving the disgruntled youth and working-class people who acted   against the British colonial government something meaningful to do. One of the activities had to do with organizing more recreational events, including planting trees in urban areas. That’s how the idea to develop country parks came about, says Wong.  

In 1965, Lee Merriam Talbot and Martha H. Talbot published Conservation of the Hong Kong Countryside. Talbot, dubbed the “Father of Hong Kong Country Parks”, strongly advocated liberating the people of Hong Kong from the tiny, constricted spaces in high-rises in congested urban areas and putting them back in close contact with nature.  

As the population grew and urbanization intensified, the bid to protect forests and watersheds from unplanned development was strongly felt as well. In 1973, then Hong Kong governor Murray MacLehose told the Legislative Council, “The mountains and beaches are for the many but the golf courses and yachts are for the few,” underscoring, in no uncertain terms, the importance of protecting parkland for the benefit of the masses. MacLehose saw the parks as a way for people to regain a state of physical and mental equilibrium, said Wong. 

In harmony with nature

Since 1977, 24 country parks have been established in Hong Kong. Among these, 19 were in line with Talbot’s plan. 

No visitor limits were set at the parks. Developers avoided the most sensitive areas when planning hiking routes and planting trees. Proximity to urban areas is a key feature of many of the parks, just as Talbot had visualized: “Patches of wilderness within walking distance of the most densely packed urban areas”. 

Shing Mun Country Park, among the first ones to have been built by 1977, is one of Wong’s favorites. Located near the urban area of Tsuen Wan, this park features a flat walking trail along the edge of a pond — a good choice for family hiking trips, Wong said. 

At the head of the Shing Mun Reservoir lies a six-hectare feng shui woodland, where over 70 species of trees grow. Birds, squirrels, barking deer and, occasionally, pangolins could be sighted here. People living in Hakka villages next to these woodland areas practice a traditional lifestyle, informed by the ancient Chinese wisdom of harmonious coexistence of human beings and nature, said Ho Pui-han, conservationist and executive director of the Association for the Ecological and Cultural Conservation of Aquilaria Sinensis.

Ho said, normally villagers would build homes where the mountain would be in the northwest and the river in the southeast. Trees are planted between mountain, river and the village houses ostensibly to stop bad luck, but also to obstruct the cold northwest monsoon in winter. They also support the soil, absorb and retain water and preserve the biodiversity, Ho said.  

To build or not to build

While the country parks have indeed functioned as the lungs of the city for the last 40 years as Talbot envisaged, the tourists descending on them in holiday season by the droves are messing up the environment. In 2015 and 2016, the parks attracted more than 13.3 million visitors, leaving 3,600 metric tons of garbage, according to AFCD. And, apart from that, only 342,600 people took part in the AFCD’s educational programs, mostly tours to nature conservation centers inside the parks and exhibitions in downtown areas. 

In recent years, the parks have become a battleground between conservationists and the government. Talbot seemed to have foreseen it all. The 1965 report says the government might have to put up with considerable economic and political pressure to open the potential park areas to make way for housing.

The debates intensified in May this year when the SAR government invited the Hong Kong Housing Society to assess the development potential of over 40 hectares of protected country park land in Tai Lam and Ma On Shan. Housing built on this vast area could potentially accommodate at least 90,000 people.

Wong believes building on parkland won’t be necessary as the buffer zones between parks and residential areas alone, covering some 30 percent of the city’s land, could help meet the housing needs of a large section of people.

Billy Hau Chi-hang, an advisor on the Country and Marine Parks Board, is also opposed to interfering with the protected land. Building of the infrastructure would also increase the burden on the parks’ ecosystem, he said. Hau pointed out that the majority of country parks are located on rugged terrain, making engineering difficult and expensive. 

If parkland must be used, it’s better to build commercial buildings rather than public housing on them, for the former is more profitable, says Hau. However, given the way the citizens have come to feel a sense of ownership toward Hong Kong’s country parks in the past 40 years, plans to develop a private enterprise would invariably face great public scrutiny, Hau said.

The Housing Society said the lands under assessment would be used only to build public housing or retirement homes, if the project takes off. The report would be submitted after 18 months. 

The AFCD does not seem to have a well-charted course of action in mind, should they need to protect the parks from being built on. Wong says the parks are under the protection of the Country Parks Ordinance. It would not be easy to amend the law, he pointed out.

AFCD organizes a series of activities to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the Country Parks. Click here to see what’s happening.

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