The Plot Thickens

In a mini city-state like Hong Kong, it is obvious that land is in short supply. So we need to be very careful how we prioritise its use.

There are three uses which stand out: they are – in no particular order – housing, employment and recreation.

Housing is a priority because men moved out of caves centuries ago and now dwell in purpose-built structures fashioned from materials that can provide shelter from the elements. In Hong Kong’s circumstances that means high rise apartment blocks for all but the privileged few. Today we have thousands of families living in buildings designed for industrial purposes or crammed into small residential flats that they are forced to share with other families. Moreover, many of those flats which are occupied by single families are really too small. This is demeaning. The aim should be to house every nuclear family in an apartment of at least 50 square metres.

Without economic activity we would all go hungry. In a service economy like Hong Kong (well over 90% of our GDP) that means mostly offices, plus hotels to accommodate visiting businessmen and tourists, once again all high rise. Very few traditional manufacturing industries can thrive in such an environment, so all but a handful of niche activities will inevitably get squeezed out. Some food processing, things like watch and shoe repair maybe (or are those too services?). Agriculture and mariculture are pretty much lost causes, though I do remember opening about 10 years ago an innovative fish farm on the high floor of an industrial building.

Sufficient space for recreational activities is absolutely vital. We live in a pressure cooker environment. When we stagger out of those offices and cramped apartments we must have room to breathe. (Let us not deviate at this point to the subject of air quality, important though it is.) We need areas close by for both active and passive recreation. Sports pitches, swimming pools or just an open area to sit quietly and read a book. When it all gets too much we must be able to "head for the hills" and go hiking. A walk in a country park is good for the whole family, it represents healthy entertainment and best of all it is free so even the poorest can enjoy the experience.

Everything else, however desirable it may be when seen in isolation, must play second fiddle to this group of three.

Out went most of our manufacturing in the 1980s and 90s, gone to the places where land and labour was much cheaper, principally in Guangdong Province. Out too has gone most of our agriculture: a crowded city is no place for large scale pig and chicken farming, notwithstanding the squeals and disapproving clucks of some traditionalists.

How can we balance the remaining priorities? We are so lucky in Hong Kong that the answer is obvious to all with eyes to see. We have large areas of flat land in the New Territories, much or it readily accessible and already serviced in the sense that roads, drains and piped water are already available or can quickly and easily be provided. We need one or more new towns – like Shatin – in the flat plains adjacent to Yuen Long and Tuen Mun.

In fairness to our government, this obvious solution has been recognized and some sensible suggestions have been put forward. But there is still a reluctance to move quickly and decisively to implement them. Instead, the debate continues to rope in wild ideas like building on open space in existing urban areas and – horror of horrors – in our country parks. When politicians float remedies that defy common sense, it does not take a genius to realise that powerful forces must be at work resisting the answers that are in the best interests of the community overall and protecting their own narrow ones.

Without further ado we should rezone the land that is suitable for immediate development, resume it for public purposes (providing space for living and working and relaxing) while paying suitable compensation.

Do we need to develop land to meet society’s needs? We do. Is such land available? Yes it is. We just need to confront the developers who have bought up much of the "agricultural" land involved waiting for a new development bonanza, plus of course those rural forces who protect only their own selfish interests.

Hong Kong is not short of land, but it might be short of political courage.