Sustainable development in Hong Kong

This past January, outgoing Chief Executive CY Leung’s final Policy Address dedicated 65 paragraphs to housing and land use, but just 14 to environmental protection and conservation. Within the land policy pages, just one paragraph was devoted to green building initiatives, and the word “sustainability” appeared in a document search twice — once in reference to population policy. Contrary to popular belief, development and sustainability go hand-in-hand, now, if they’re not wholly interchangeable, but it would appear Hong Kong is happy to muddle ahead without making any real progress.

A great deal of Hong Kong’s long term sustainable planning is wrapped up in the Hong Kong 2030+: Towards a Planning Vision and Strategy Transcending 2030 policy,
for which the government has, “commenced… planning study and is carrying out public engagement.” On the green building front, the government has made sustainability voluntary: “Under the current arrangement, a private housing development project is required, among other things, to register for Building Environmental Assessment Method Plus (BEAM Plus) as a prerequisite for application for gross floor area concession for amenity features. We will review this arrangement to further promote green building. In the review, we will consider tightening the prerequisite by requiring a development project to attain specific standards of performance in environmental protection.”

As administered by the non-legislative Hong Kong Green Building Council (HKGBC), existing and new construction projects are subjecting themselves to a rating (silver, gold, platinum) for planning, design, operation and construction among other sustainability and green criteria. As of April, there were 167 registered commercial BEAM Plus projects in the city, 153 government and institutional buildings, and 54 hotels. But at the top of the list was residential property, with 389 BEAM Plus buildings, representing 40% of the total. That number jumps to 45% when only assessed buildings (481) are counted. With between 40,000 and 70,000 buildings in Hong Kong, green-certified buildings make up as little as 1.2%.

There’s no real action planned by government either, according to Dr. Merrin Pearse, chair of the Living Islands Movement. “2030+ isn’t a visionary document. It just says we’re going to pour concrete,” he argues.
“Where’s the goal higher than 1% of all our electricity generated by renewables like solar power? Where’s the vision?”

Green building is often conflated with sustainability, and to a degree that’s accurate. The HKGBC includes long-term sustainability among the metrics it uses to assess projects. Among the rated residential projects in the city now: Henderson Land’s High Point (rated gold), Swire Properties’ Arezzo (platinum); the MTR Corporation’s Austin Station project (gold); Sun Hung Kai Properties’ Residence 88 (gold); Dunbar Place (platinum); Hong Kong Housing Society’s Greenview Villa (platinum); and HKU’s post-graduate residence on Ching Lin Terrace (gold) as just a few (the entire list is available at There’s still a way to go.

Beyond Hong Kong
Lantau Island, and specifically the East Lantau Metropolis (ELM), is a sustainability flashpoint, as its development is geared towards addressing housing shortfalls (up to one million people could wind up on Lantau in the future) and tourism stresses. One of the alleged problems with the government’s plan is that it’s basing its development on faulty data, according to Tom Yam, founder of the East Lantau Metropolis action group. Reclamation is also a major element of the plan, aiming to add 1,000 hectares of land between Kennedy Town and Lantau. “There is a whole list of options [government] could explore, but those require leadership and political will,” says Yam of the wobbly housing solutions. “Reclamation would cost $400 billion and 30 years,” he adds, pointing out the plan threatens the already delicate ecological equilibrium. To make matters worse, Yam claims the population projections for 2017 have not been met (we should be nine million in the SAR already), and the numbers will drop after 2043, putting the need for all that housing into question. Those other options include rezoning some of the 100-plus empty schools that have closed in the last 15 years, committing to use of brownfield sites, or using all or some of the 170 hectares at Fanling’s golf club, whose lease the government refuses to terminate. The ELM, “has nothing to do with solving the housing problem right now,” states Yam.

Elsewhere on Lantau, Pearse sees the new HOS development at Mui Wo as a missed opportunity to plan a sustainable, green community that could be a model for other parts of Hong Kong. The project, 700 affordable units priced at roughly $8,000 per square foot (according to Housing Authority subsidised housing committee chair Stanley Wong in February), “is no different to anything that’s been built anywhere in Hong Kong in the last 30 or 40 years. We went to the Town Planning Board at the approval stage with a couple of issues… and of all the really different schemes we suggested — about waste management, efficiency, community gardens, anything — the only thing they questioned was about the lights that could have been on at night. The project was approved. Nothing changed.”

For now, increased sustainability will remain an issue of consumer pressure and hoping the private sector will fill in the gaps. “We can talk until we’re blue in the face but if the government doesn’t want to listen they won’t,” laments Yam. “The best we can do is talk to all 18 district councillors and hope they spread the word. It’s 400 billion taxpayer dollars and a place for all of Hong Kong to enjoy. It’s not just a Lantau issue.”

Neither the Lantau Development Advisory Council nor the Development Bureau responded to requests for a comment.

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