Flying low over the city on descent into Hong Kong airport several years ago, I was greeted with views of a mountainous green coastal territory punctuated by pockets of dense urban development. The city of Hong Kong covers patches of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories, as well as some of the 200 offshore islands which are part of the Special Administrative Region (Environment Bureau, 2016: 6). Overall, 70% of Hong Kong is green. Listed by the Telegraph as one of ‘the most unlikely green spaces around the world’, the proliferation of greenery in Hong Kong may seem counterintuitive in one of the most densely populated cities in the world, but ultimately represents a significant success in urban planning policy and environmental and social wellbeing, supporting the city’s alluring international image.
Hong Kong’s green space is haven for biodiversity. 26 Country Parks dating back to the 1970s make up 40% of Hong Kong’s area, and the city is correspondingly ‘ranked fifth among world economies for share of territorial area under protection’ (Environment Bureau, 2016: 15). Hong Kong’s protected areas are home to 98% of the territory’s terrestrial wildlife (Environment Bureau, 2016: 15). This includes 540 bird species, a third of the range of species in the whole of China, as well as endangered species including the Chinese Pangolin, and 2100 species native to Hong Kong. However, in the landscape of political ecology, endearing biodiversity figures are not enough to win over land-hungry property developers in one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets.
Here, it is important to explore the tangible benefits of green space for the built-up areas of the territory. Firstly, green space surrounding pockets of developed land in Hong Kong work to mitigate against the urban heat island effect (Sun and Chen, 2017: 38). Extensive green areas also act as ‘lungs’, mitigating against Hong Kong’s perennial air pollution problem, whilst greenery reduces potentially hazardous rainwater runoff. Of particular importance is vegetation’s role in protecting against landslips, a very real risk as urban development has encroached on ‘increasingly steep slopes’ (Jim, 1989: 176). Vegetation is a key strategy in the city’s Landslip and Mitigation Programme (Environment Bureau, 2016: 28), demonstrating the profound importance of green space for the physical resilience of the built environment.
Physically tangible benefits give way to a multitude of social benefits which crucially underpin Hong Kong’s proposition as a vibrant global city. Hiking trails are an attraction for locals and visitors alike, contributing to annual country park visitor numbers in excess of 11 million. Hiking trails include the 100km MacLehose Trail in the New Territories, as well as the 50km Hong Kong Island Trail and stunning Dragon’s Back Trail (pictured). Whilst promoting physical health, recreational activities represent an opportunity for community building. This is exemplified in the ‘Out in HK’ community group. This LGBT+ network frequently plans night time hiking trips which it advertises on social media. These small group hikes demonstrate the social benefits of Hong Kong’s extensive green space. Further to this, conservation areas are an invaluable educational resource, with nearly 400,000 young people benefiting from educational activities focused on biodiversity each year.
The intrinsic advantages of a city rich in green space have helped debunk arguments from property developers wishing to open up land for housing construction. Whilst developers have argued that greenfield developments are key to solving the affordable housing shortage, research suggests that the sale of government controlled land would have minimal impact on house prices (Li et al, 2015: 981), whilst sacrificing a multitude of benefits represented by Hong Kong’s green space. In 2014, Architect Keith Griffith’s argued that ‘our livelihood, our comfort and happiness is more important than looking at some trees.’ His words fly in the face of clear evidence of the environmental and socio-economic advantages of of Hong Kong’s green space, which the government appears to have acknowledged in its 2017 promise to protect country parks from development. The preservation of Hong Kong’s Country Parks is a planning success story, but in a city characterised by a roaring private real estate market, their survival should by no means be taken for granted.
Environment Bureau, ‘Hong Kong Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for 2016-2021’, 2016, accessed at: https://www.afcd.gov.hk/english/conservation/Con_hkbsap/files/HKBSAP_ENG_2.pdf;
Jim, ‘The Distribution and Configuration of Tree Cover in Urban Hong Kong’, GeoJournal, Vol.18, Issue 2, p. 175-188, 1989;
Li, LH, Wong, KKW, Cheung, KS, ‘Land supply and housing prices in Hong Kong: The political economy of urban land policy’, Evironment and Planning C: Government and Policy, vol. 34, 2016, p.981-998; and
Sun and Chen, ‘Effects of green space dynamics on urban heat islands: mitigation and diversification’, Ecosystem Services, Vol. 23, p.38-46, 2017, accessed at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2212041616301772
Feature Image: Aerial View of Hong Kong, with Lamma Island at the bottom left, Hong Kong island in the middle-right and Kowloon and the New Territories above, Author, 2016