Land-hungry Hong Kong mulls creating underground city
HONG KONG - Wild boar and water buffalo are not an image most people associate with one of the world's great global financial centers.
Yet in Hong Kong, where more than 7 million people are packed into just 30 percent of the territory, the green belts, country parks, woodlands and wetlands that take up the rest of the land provide ample space for such animals to roam.
That could be about to change. As officials scour the territory for new places to build, the prospect of going underground, creating man-made islands or developing the city's cherished parks are all among the options being discussed.
One idea is to build a cross-harbor pedestrian corridor - with shops and entertainment facilities along the way - underneath the city's kilometer-wide Victoria Harbour.
Encroaching onto the green spaces has strong support from Hong Kong's powerful property tycoons, who are feeling the heat from a series of tightening measures aimed at reining in prices that have jumped 120 percent since 2008.
Gordon Wu, chairman of developer Hopewell Holdings Ltd and vice president of the Real East Developers' Association, calls the attachment to parks "stupid".
But some business executives say the rural habitats that make up the bulk of the former British colony's roughly 1,100 sq km (425 sq miles) help give the city an edge over rival global finance centres in the eyes of many expatriates.
"They like that you can get out of Central and be up walking in the hills in 15 minutes," said Simon Galpin, director-general of InvestHK, which supports foreign investment in Hong Kong.
Richard Vuylsteke, president of the city's American Chamber of Commerce, said people would not consider the city to be a great place to live if country parks were developed.
"The quality of life has an impact on the quality of business," he said.
WILD BOAR OR CAGE HOMES?
Last year, roughly 13 million people visited Hong Kong's country parks, home to Burmese pythons, Chinese pangolins, civet cats, badgers and muntjac deer.
But the space devoted to wildlife creates a dilemma for authorities trying to find homes for the 230,000 people on a waiting list for public housing in one of the world's most expensive property markets. Officials estimate an additional 470,000 flats will be needed in the next decade.
"Why are boar allowed to wander around while humans are forced to live in cubicle apartments and cage homes?" Wu told local television last month, referring to the stacked wire mesh hutches where some of the city's poorest people live.
"You say country park is the pride of Hong Kong, but I think it is stupid."
New World Development Co Ltd's chairman Henry Cheng Kar-Shun and billionaire Lee Shau Kee, chairman of Henderson Land Development Co Ltd, also see country parks as an ideal solution to the city's housing problem.
The government forecasts it will need to build one new town that would house roughly 600,000 people per decade over the next 30 years due to the continuous inflow of people to the city, both from mainland China and elsewhere.
Sea reclamation is another option. Hong Kong's 6,800 hectares of reclaimed land - about 6 percent of its territory - already houses 1.9 million people.
Six areas for future reclamation have been proposed by the Development Bureau to potentially create up to a further 3,100 hectares of land.
Another plan on the drawing board is man-made islands close to the city's financial district, where the Development Bureau aims to create up to 2,400 hectares of "extension of urban area" to accommodate large-scale community and industrial facilities.
No further details on the proposed islands are available for now, the Development Bureau told Reuters.
Despite its success, reclamation has declined significantly in the past decade, following a 1997 ordinance that limits further development in Victoria Harbour to preserve the city's famous panorama.
New reclamation projects also often face opposition from residents worried about the impact on the value of sea-view apartments and the blocking of cooling breezes. There are also environmental objections.
"For sea reclamation, the key objection is about the dolphins," CLSA property analyst Nicole Wong said. "But I guess dolphins are more mobile than country parks - how could you relocate animals in country parks?"
With strong public objections against developing country parks and further reclamation, authorities have another idea in mind: move the city underground.
Hong Kong is conducting its first territory-wide study into the feasibility of creating an extensive underground city, with retail outlets, pedestrian links, a sports field and even a columbarium.
"The government is looking into all options that can create space," said Samuel Ng, chief geotechnical engineer at the Civil Engineering and Development Department.
Ng, who is responsible for the study, said by moving facilities such as refuse collection points underground, land could be freed up.
"If we develop it properly, maybe in 10 years time it really becomes a solution option for us," said Ng.
The department said it would identify 15 urban areas for underground development by the end of 2015, with each site covering a surface area of at least 40 hectares - roughly twice the size of Victoria Park, the largest park on Hong Kong Island.
But experts said moving facilities underground will be many times more expensive than surface projects due to higher construction costs. Lengthy studies are also needed on the feasibility of underground projects, and the city's need for housing is urgent.
"They are expensive and it also takes some while," said Bernard Lim, president at Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design. "It’s definitely not the immediate answer."