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Monday, August 24, 2015, 08:52

It is time to treasure our great local heritage of parks and trees

By Jocelyn Chey

It was a standing joke in the family. Passing by the Space Museum in Tsim Sha Tsui, someone would ask, “Why did Hong Kong open a space museum?” and someone else would shout, “Because there was so little left, they had to preserve what they still had.”

Of course, this joke was based on the English name of the museum, not the Chinese one. It was a comical misunderstanding and, of course, completely wrong.  Although It is time to treasure our great local heritage of parks and trees Hong Kong is densely populated and one of the great urban centers of the world, three quarters of its area is countryside, and declared country parks occupy 440 square kilometers. Established by government ordinance for recreation and conservation during the tenure of then governor Murray MacLehose in 1976, the parks attract more than 13 million visitors every year. The open spaces also include the 15 square kilometers of the Mai Po wetlands — home to migratory birds — listed under the Ramsar Convention in 1995. These parks and open spaces are the green lungs of Hong Kong and the source of its inimitable qi energy.

Most visitors and tourists are oblivious to the charms of these green spaces. Hong Kong is internationally renowned for its “volumetric” architecture that provides residential and commercial services for citizens in the most efficient way, while still preserving green open areas and minimizing its environmental footprint. As the world population grows and urbanisation increases, planners and designers can learn much from Hong Kong’s experience. They should also recognize that while the buildings and transport services are the bones of the city, its life force depends on its amazing inheritance of parks, hills and water.

The landscape of Hong Kong has been through many phases over the centuries and continues to evolve today. Industries such as lime burning disappeared long ago, and fish farming and agriculture gave way to manufacturing industries, trade and transport hubs. There were pine plantations before the Pacific War that were all cut down during the Japanese occupation, so that 70 years ago, after the end of the war, reforestation was a priority for the government. Many trees were introduced at that time, such as the Australian casuarinas planted along the southern beaches of Hong Kong Island.

It does not make sense to try to restore the territory’s original native vegetation, but where pockets of old growth forest remain they are particularly valuable because of all these historic changes. It is remarkable that some local groves of trees have somehow lasted to the present day, largely because of their significance for feng shui protection of villages and burial sites or because they are believed to house tree spirits.

This is particularly true of banyan trees, which are native to Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. The banyans that line Nathan Road were planted in the 1870s when that road was first laid out. There is a mighty tree in Kowloon Park, and others in New Territories villages — as well as throughout the city. Professor Jim Chi-yung of the University of Hong Kong probably knows each and every one. The aerial roots of banyans help them to cling to rocky hillsides and retaining walls so that they have to some extent been able to adapt to city developments. But there are tensions between their requirement for air and water to help them grow and the opposing demands of building owners and government planners.

In Australia, bushfires are a seasonal threat to homes and businesses, and after last year’s serious fires in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, the state government passed legislation permitting householders to remove trees that might pose a fire hazard. Unfortunately many people have taken advantage of this to remove trees for other reasons, for instance to “improve the view” or “prevent danger from falling branches”. This situation reminds me of Hong Kong, where typhoons and landslides are of constant concern to citizens and local authorities and led to the removal of banyans from Bonham Road last month. No doubt it was thought that more of the trees might fall if they were left in situ, or that they might bring down the old stone retaining walls. One wonders whether consideration was also given to the role of tree roots in stabilizing the hillside, or to the possibility of partial surgery rather than holus-bolus removal.

Were there resident spirits in those banyan trees?  Maybe, maybe not, but trees certainly reduce carbon dioxide and help combat climate change. They clean the polluted city air of harmful ozone, sulphur and other fumes, replacing them with oxygen. In Los Angeles it has been shown that city trees can reduce air temperature by up to 10 degrees.

Let us treasure our trees and our country parks. As Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “Trees are the Earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.”

The author is a visiting professor at the School of Languages and Cultures, University of Sydney. She was previously a senior officer in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Her last posting was as consul-general in Hong Kong and Macao.
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