No to country park for housing

September 9th, 2013 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth 1 Comment »

There’s a very good reason why Hong Kong’s Development Secretary should not be Hong Kong’s Development Secretary: he has no understanding of the broader issues that affect his portfolio.

Just because 43% (not the 70% that Paul Chan claimed to justify his plans) of Hong Kong’s land is protected country park doesn’t make it acceptable to seize any of it for housing. Here are a few reasons why:

  • The country park system was set up in the first place to protect Hong Kong’s water resource; the benefit to the city’s flora and fauna is a side consequence of this. Although the city now buys most of its water from mainland China, shortages due to climate change-induced drought will make it increasingly important for us to maintain a source of clean local supply
  • Our country parks give us green lungs, attract visitors tired of endless shopping and ameliorate the urban heat island effect caused by densely built-up areas
  • There is plenty of land now hogged by indigenous villagers taking advantage of the small house policy to build three-storey village houses, not for their own use, but for profit. By calling for the destruction of the country parks in the name of housing, Paul Chan is dodging the contentious issue of the small house policy. His predecessor, the current Chief Secretary Mrs Carrie Lam, had a better understanding of the broader issues and tried what she could to at least start the debate when she was in his post; not Chan.

What Chan is suggesting is not something that will benefit Hong Kong as a whole. It will, however, benefit property players who must be rubbing their hands in glee, awaiting the opportunity to chop down the trees to build flats so small they have been described as glorified subdivided flats – which, of course, are what Chan himself is known to have invested in before he assumed his official post.

Vertical farming comes to Tai Po

July 22nd, 2013 atam Posted in Building, Food, General No Comments »

Someone’s proposed building vertical farms that they claim will produce enough vegetables to feed the whole of Hong Kong, without even using soil.

And there are futuristic artist’s impressions to show what they’d look like. Except, of course, they kind of work like those property sales brochures where they show you the views minus surrounding developments. If Tai Po is this open, wouldn’t it be more resource-efficient to just farm on the ground? If Tai Po is set to be as crowded as Kowloon, would there be enough sunlight to grow the vegetables, whichever direction the floor slabs turn? The idea of these structures puncturing the landscape isn’t exactly appealing either.

Rather than separate vertical farms, how ’bout incorporating them into habitable buildings? Green the urban landscape. Give people the space to grow their own. You could even have whole residential estates designed with balcony farms and sell the flats to green fingers so they don’t have to price out organic farmers in their search for plots to grow their own vegetables.



Bad fung shui

April 26th, 2013 atam Posted in Building, General No Comments »

When the old masters of HSBC commissioned the development of the bank’s new headquarters in Central, they were advised by fung shui experts to maintain the flow of sea breeze through the public area at ground level if the new building was to bring prosperity.

Well, judging by the way they have used the clever gates to prevent any protests by striking dock workers camping outside Cheung Kong Centre from spilling over to their HQ, the bank’s fortunes may take a turn for the worse.

They are complying with government requirement to maintain public access by leaving a narrow opening at the two ends of the public area, but the sea breeze has been shut out. The result is a major loss of natural ventilation in a very built-up part of the business district. This is bad for air quality in the area, which will also become hotter when summer arrives. If the fung shui experts are right, this is also bad for the bank itself.

Wondering why HK’s getting hotter?

March 24th, 2013 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, General 3 Comments »

Willful ignorance can be lethal. While the government and various organisations are pushing green building and showing off landscaped roofs every chance they get, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department has apparently been quietly replacing natural sports pitches with artificial ones.

There was a story in the Post last Thursday (March 21) about artificial turf causing more injuries to players who also kick up bits of the rubber substrate, thereby releasing the heavy metals and other substances they contain. What the story doesn’t say, even though it mentioned that the temperature of artificial pitches is higher than natural ones, is their contribution to the urban heat island effect. So add a few green roofs and plant a few more trees; slowly but surely, LCSD is cancelling out their cooling effect or making things worse by introducing more artificial pitches.

Why is the department doing this? Lower maintenance cost, of course. But just as society continues to fret over the plight of those on low income, wouldn’t it be nice if the government could, instead of handouts or welfare payments, create some positions for gardeners? They can tend to the natural pitches and retain some dignity for doing valuable work. The trouble with the government, though, is that it loves throwing money at capital assets but baulks at spending the tiniest amount on recurrent costs – which usually involve human beings. Thus we have spanking new roads and artificial pitches that, by the way, don’t hold any water like natural pitches do and are therefore more prone to flooding, which will be more often thanks to heavier downpours associated with climate change.

Residents are right to be concerned. It’s not just the potential injuries associated with use of artificial pitches; their districts will get hotter as well as more artificial pitches replace natural ones.

A tip from the parallel traders

February 23rd, 2013 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, General No Comments »

There isn’t much “work-life balance” in Hong Kong, is there? It never rains but it pours, as they say, so while loads of people jumped on planes over the holidays adding their bit of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, some blogger was straining to find time for a post or two urging people to live sustainably, in vain.

Anyway, residents of northern New Territories have been up in arms again over parallel traders sneaking goods across the border and many a legitimate but laden user of the MTR has been caught in the crossfire.

But in a way, these parallel traders are doing us a favour – by showing us how useful the railway system is for carrying freight.

In its bid to cut air pollution, the Hong Kong government is about to spend a big chunk of money subsidising lorry drivers who switch to Euro V engines; imagine investing that money on a freight rail instead. A significant portion of roadside pollution will be eliminated and severe road accidents involving heavy vehicles will be cut as well.

Although a freight rail is a more environmentally friendly way of transporting goods, the government has opted to rely on road transport, to such an extent that plans for a freight rail appears to have been shelved for good. This at a time when the Chinese government is considering plans to use their railway network for freight more as its high-speed lines take passengers away from the older, slower rail lines.

Isn’t it funny how, while proclaiming its commitment to cut the city’s carbon emissions, the government is if anything doing all it can to increase it, by pushing for a third runway, shelving a freight rail and building a bridge to bring in more road traffic? All this is apparently OK because Hong Kong’s great stock of buildings account for nearly 90% of its emissions. Improve building energy efficiency, so the thinking goes, and the city’s overall carbon emissions will be down. Have these officials heard of the Jevons Paradox? Guess not.

This is also a government that’s very keen on increasing the population, for the sake of increasing economic growth. Look at the stresses that are already apparent with just seven million. And look also at the stresses that are apparent when the city got swamped with tourists to such an extent even the tourism chief, James Tien, pleaded for restrictions to the independent travellers scheme until Hong Kong has the infrastructure to cope with them. Presumably this means there are enough hotels so some visitors wouldn’t be left to sleep in their coaches, but what about the living, breathing residents who are finding themselves stuck with steeper prices for everything, closed neighbourhood stores and in queues where there used to be room to move?

Can we eat real estate?

January 12th, 2013 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, Food, General No Comments »

Here’s a suggestion for Henderson Land chief Lee Shau-kee: how ’bout him moving into a 300 sq ft flat and let several families now stuck in subdivided flats move into his palatial mansion?

Taking advantage of the government’s predicament with regards to Hong Kong’s housing supply, he’s suggested that he should be allowed to convert his agricultural land holdings into land for residential use without paying extra land premium. The bait: he’d build 300 sq ft flats on them to be sold for HK$1 million each.

Considering how little he must have paid to acquire those plots over the years, he’s effectively proposing that taxpayers subsidise his property development plans by forgoing the additional premium, which as public revenue could then be spent on the provision of facilities to serve society as a whole. What’s more, he’s got the clever accountants on-side. For an example of how professional training can lead to tunnel vision, look no further, for the accountants just figure: ah, land shortage for housing, Mr Lee’s got a great idea! Next thing you know, they’ll be nodding enthusiastically at proposals to build bedsits. What a great idea for wealth redistribution – from the poor to the rich.

Is it actually possible for millions to live in dressed-up subdivided flats or even caged homes and remain sane? Suppose we manage to fit in a population of 9 million on every square inch of available space, will the city’s infrastructure and welfare provisions be able to cope?

Meanwhile, the government’s housing adviser Michael Choi is suggesting that families be provided with a subsidy so they can afford to have both children and their own homes. Er, fancy having kids screaming and jumping about in a 300 sq ft flat?

In a world stricken by climate change, where food shortages become increasingly frequent, the millions squeezed into tiny homes will struggle to afford the most basic foodstuffs – as many already do. Melting Arctic ice is triggering a severe winter that has caused vegetable prices to shoot up and even the middle class is finding it hard to cope. As climate change gets worse and food becomes even more expensive, will we then find ourselves looking pensively at the former agricultural plots, wondering what might have been had they been made productive again, producing vegetables to meet the needs of a smaller population.

If the government invests its surplus in seeing the population over the demographic hump rather than seek to increase the population in order to have enough people of working (slaving) age to pay for the services needed by the aged, then we could all live in a much more pleasant, spacious environment. Always looking to increase the population is like what they’re saying about the Americans’ temporary solution to the fiscal cliff: kicking the can down the road without solving the problem. At some stage the population will simply get too large for the ecosystem to cope, and then who’ll solve the problem?

How NOT to be sustainable, in the Landmark HK

December 10th, 2012 Mar Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, Greenwash 1 Comment »

For the latest example of Hong Kong’s leading companies saying one thing and doing the opposite, visit the Landmark, one of Hongkong Land’s crown jewels.    There you will find, in the centre of the atrium, a large white monstrosity masquerading as a snowy mountain, with fake ski-lodge, skis, and a gondola constantly revolving on eye level with the shops on level 2.  The whole piece is ringed by round wooden posts.

But wait! Come closer and you will notice that these round wooden posts are actually pieces of small tree trunk!  That’s right, Hongkong Land not only wanted to erect an ornament that will be demolished and sent to landfill within six weeks of installation; they also needed to kill at least thirty trees—if not more– to make that wooden fence.

As a vegetarian, my friends often try to goad me into debate about whether plants are living beings.  Whether or not you believe that trees are as “alive” as animals, surely you’ll agree that it takes a huge amount of hubris and ignorance to kill thirty trees in order to give “the public” six weeks of eyesore in the middle of Central?

Hongkong Land claims on its website and in its sustainability report to be “committed to sustainability… and to minimise our impact upon the environment as far as practicable” and to “implement sustainable practices and technologies in all our buildings.”

Even without knowing what else was destroyed to make that fake mountain, or the number of years that it will rot in the landfill after 2012 is long gone, or the amount of coal burned to run the gondola 18-20 hours a day, it seems that this whole installation is the opposite of sustainable.  No doubt Hongkong Land will spin it otherwise, perhaps even in their next sustainability report.

Holidays are supposed to be about the spirit of giving.  Instead, Hongkong Land shows us only taking:  us taking from the earth, taking from nature, and taking from the future, and all without giving anything back.  No thank you, Hongkong Land!





The real question

November 5th, 2012 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, General No Comments »

Having just discussed the problem of economic growth as identified by Adair Turner, chairman of the UK’s Financial Services Authority, it’s interesting to note that the latest member of the new administration to be in the doghouse – Franklin Lam – happens to be someone who’s extremely gung-ho about economic growth.

So much so, his think tank HK Golden 50 put out a report last year outlining ways to push growth higher – that is long on charts and figures but woefully short on social analysis, other than the idea of making Hong Kongers rediscover their “can-do spirit” – not for their own betterment, but in the service of economic growth. No wonder the new Chief Executive was so enthused that the author of the report was invited to join the Executive Council.

But now we have a real governance problem. Here’s a Development Minister who profits from the plight of the poor by investing in subdivided flats, and here’s an Executive Councillor who’s part of the housing problem – he has an investment portfolio with 27 properties. Given their personal interest in making money out of the social issues that afflict the city, can they be relied upon to propose and implement policies designed to benefit society at large?

Perhaps it’s no accident that Lam is such an enthusiastic proponent of economic growth: unlike Lord Turner, who was also chairman of the UK’s Commission on Climate Change, he appears to have no interest in this matter; climate change did not factor at all in his bullish report.  Can anyone seriously believe an economic vision that treats climate change as non-existent?  Go figure.

All this is far more serious than the question of whether or not he took advantage of insider knowledge of the government’s plan to impose restrictions on the property market by selling two properties before the measures took effect. (One must also wonder: if indeed it was true that Executive Councillors were not even consulted before the government went ahead with the new measures, then what are they there for?)

But perhaps the real question should be: is the knack for blaming one’s wife for one’s missteps a prerequisite for high office in Hong Kong??

Housing affordability vs housing shortage

September 7th, 2012 atam Posted in Building, General No Comments »

What exactly is a home? Judging by the widely accepted reference to residential accommodation as ‘properties’, it should be clear that the place where we live is, for many, not so much a home as an investment product.

It’s easy – and dangerous – to confuse the two though. Hong Kong now has a red-hot property ‘market’, which has affected the affordability of homes, but there isn’t really a housing shortage. If only the government was open to alternative ideas, they could try this measure: impose a tax on vacant units, say 5% of rateable value for the first month of vacancy, 10% for two and 15% for three months, and so on. Rather than sit on their purchases and wait for an opportunity to flip their properties, landlords would then be forced to find tenants quickly, which would drive rents down; or exit the investment property market. Then perhaps a clearer picture will emerge of just how many new flats Hong Kong really needs built – not that the government doesn’t already have an idea, as the graph below, from the Ratings and Valuations Department, shows.

The problem right now is, the stock market is tanking and inflation is eating away at people’s savings while interest rates are at a historic low. Investing in properties seems the most obvious option for well-off mainlanders and locals alike who are keen to preserve or grow the money they have. The consequence of this trend is that, increasingly, flats are built not so much to be lived in than as a concrete investment. Hence flats the size of glorified subdivided units and ridiculously luxurious penthouses.

Those that are in between aren’t necessarily of a decent quality. A friend who came to Hong Kong for a month was offered a flat in Tseung Kwan O that someone had bought as an investment and happy to leave vacant because previous occupants had found the windows draughty and the pipework suspect. It was cheaper to take a bit of rent here and there than to try and fix these problems. My friend developed a rasping cough soon after moving in and eventually found alternative accommodation.

If people have other means of growing their savings so they can beat inflation and be sure of a comfortable retirement, demand for property will fall. Imposing sale conditions on developers, as CE Leung Chun-ying has done by stipulating the development of flats for permanent Hong Kong residents only, doesn’t prevent developers from delivering a shoddy product, nor does it prevent people from playing the property market like they do the stock market. Although the government can’t do anything about interest rates due to the HK dollar peg to the greenback, there are nonetheless other measures that would be more effective than simply rushing out more flats of dubious sizes and quality.


On a road to nowhere

September 6th, 2012 atam Posted in Building, General 1 Comment »

Here’s a little fact: manufacturers in the Pearl River Delta region have been closing shop or moving out due to weak global demand as well as higher wages.

So much so, the Federation of Hong Kong Industries forecast their numbers to fall by 30% by 2016.

The trouble is, Hong Kong manufacturers haven’t really moved on from the sort of basic goods that have made them so much money in the past. To survive, they either have to relocate to lower-cost production centres elsewhere in Asia, like Cambodia; close shop, or transition to the production of value-added goods in line with neighbouring Guangdong’s plan to upgrade itself.

Judging by the FHKI’s survey of its members, most have opted for the first two rather than move up the value chain.

And here’s a second fact: the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge is due for completion in …. 2016.

With many Hong Kong-owned factories having shut and the rest probably exporting from an Asian port in a different country or the cheaper ports elsewhere in China, like those in Shenzhen and Shanghai, who exactly will be utilising this super-duper multibillion-dollar bridge?? Not, please, the gungho mainland drivers whose habits account for China’s shocking record of road accidents.

The Hong Kong government is well aware of Guangdong’s plans and has repeatedly said it would support the development of hi-tech industries and R&D, but its words and deeds are hardly consistent. I’ve spoken to academics at City University and PolyU who, while pleased with the interest shown by the commercial sector in their projects, have bemoaned the lack of substantive support for the development of a hi-tech sector in Hong Kong. As a result, they find themselves nurturing talents that end up being tapped by someone else, overseas. Or promising youngsters simply look around them and realise the limited career opportunities open to them and decide not to study a technical subject at all.

In the meantime, what the government has actually implemented is the lowest of low-tech: getting more mainlanders to visit the city and spend, spend, spend. Now everybody, including immigration officers, are fed up.

What kind of jobs are being generated by this kind of approach? Not anybody with professional or technical skills; only tourist guides on commission, waiters, cleaners, retail sales. Every time I get a junk call from someone selling credit finance, beauty treatments, etc, I’m tempted to ask whether they can’t find a more decent, ethical means of making a living. Clearly they can’t; the government’s policy doesn’t give them room to do so, and all the money that might have gone into training them for more beneficial employment has, instead, gone into building a bridge to nowhere.