By Tobi Lau

Ecologically sensitive areas or areas of conservation importance, including country parks, seas and agricultural land, have been targeted by the government’s task force on land supply as part of its 5-month public consultation that puts forward 18 proposals on how to ease the territory’s housing crunch.

But the new public consultation begs the question: do we have a long-term housing shortage? According to the Census and Statistics Department’s report “Hong Kong Domestic Household Projections up to 2051”, Hong Kong’s population will start declining by 2043 and the number of households will only increase by 440,000 units up to 2051. But over 600,000 housing units are planned. It would seem there is no land shortage problem in the longer term.

According to the research done by the Liber Research Community, Hong Kong now has almost 1,200 hectares of brownfield sites – farmland polluted by industrial activity. The total area of the big clusters outside planned development areas is nearly 390 hectares. Among them, there are four brownfield clusters with individual areas bigger than 30 hectares. The cluster in Wang Toi Shan in Pat Heung alone has 71 hectares.

Wang Toi Shan
Brownfield site in Wang Toi Shan, June 2017. Photo: Liber Research Community.

Speeding up the resumption of these brownfield sites and devising a fair compensation mechanism for planned development projects would ease the short-term housing problem without sacrificing our precious natural areas.

Building on our natural areas would not only cause irreversible damage to the city’s ecology, but is detrimental to local biodiversity and will take longer to produce housing than building on brownfield sites that already have the necessary infrastructure. However, the government has played down the brownfield option, arguing that it would involve huge infrastructure costs as the sites are scattered in remote locations and are irregularly-shaped.

Nature and biodiversity are the keys to our life support system. In Hong Kong, we enjoy a rich biodiversity and the government recognizes the importance of biodiversity conservation. As promised in Hong Kong’s first Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (BSAP), the government will prioritize actions to safeguard the city’s biodiversity from 2016-2021.

Brownfield site Hung Shui Kiu New Development Area
Brownfield site in Hung Shui Kiu New Development Area. Photo: GovHK.

Hong Kong possesses immense biodiversity. Our country parks have recreational, educational and scenic value. They also provide clean water and fresh air, regulating the climate and preventing soil erosion. With better marine conservation, our seas could support thriving fisheries, employ thousands of local people and supply fresh seafood. Reclamation will destroy the natural coastline and habitats that are important for fish to spawn and nurse. It will affect the recovery of fisheries resources in Hong Kong seas and reduce the conservation effectiveness of the trawling ban.

Developing country parks and reclamation would be a long process of over 20 years requiring planning, environmental impact assessments, approvals and complicated engineering work. There are other more immediate options available for housing, such as brownfield sites. The government should safeguard the integrity of Hong Kong’s country parks and valuable marine habitats and species by not reclaiming in, or close to, ecologically sensitive areas, to prevent irreversible damage to our natural spaces.

country park
A country park in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

It is also questionable to use agricultural land for housing development. Local agricultural land secures food safety and supply stability and helps to support biodiversity in wildlife species, particularly providing places for many farmland birds to forage. As such, agriculture land that is actively managed, or fallow arable farmland with ecological value and potential for cultivation, should be conserved. A compensatory mechanism to landowners to release private farmlands for rehabilitation should be formulated.

WWF believes the government should adopt a “brownfield first” policy to build on the existing 1,200 hectares of brownfield sites that already have the necessary infrastructure in place to address short-term housing problems – without sacrificing our precious natural environment.

Tobi Lau is the Senior Conservation Officer of Local Biodiversity at WWF Hong Kong.

The World Wide Fund for Nature was founded in 1961, with the goal to build a future where people live in harmony with nature. In support of our global mission, WWF-Hong Kong is working to transform Hong Kong into Asia’s most sustainable city.