Chang­ing peo­ple’s mind­set may fos­ter a hous­ing mir­a­cle in HK

Ge­of­frey Somers writes that Hong Kong’s large coun­try parks might pro­vide a pos­si­ble so­lu­tion to young peo­ple’s prob­lem in own­ing a home in the city

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

When the new Chief Ex­ec­u­tive takes over the ad­min­is­tra­tion next year, one of the big­gest prob­lems con­fronting him/ her will be to find a way of solv­ing Hong Kong’s crit­i­cal hous­ing short­age. Or, more specif­i­cally, to find the land where new pub­lic and pri­vate es­tates can be built.

You may take it for granted that the most af­fected sec­tion of the com­mu­nity — young cou­ples who have been squeezed out of the mar­ket — will be among the first to start mak­ing de­mands to the new leader.

To­day’s gen­er­a­tion of teens and peo­ple in their 20s have al­ready proved their pen­chant for pro­tracted street demon­stra­tions and burst­ing onto the po­lit­i­cal scene, cam­paign­ing for sep­a­ratism and in­de­pen­dence, and up­set­ting the ap­ple­cart.

When it comes to hous­ing they must re­al­ize that noth­ing short of a mir­a­cle can re­verse the present im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion. But re­cent his­tory shows that Hong Kong ac­tu­ally has an amaz­ing record of per­form­ing mir­a­cles to house its home­less.

In the late 1940s and 1950s there was a huge in­take of new im­mi­grants from over the bor­der. Shanty towns of makeshift huts sud­denly ap­peared on hill­sides over­look­ing bustling ur­ban districts on ei­ther side of the har­bor. But dev­as­tat­ing fires would reg­u­larly sweep through these squat­ter set­tle­ments, es­pe­cially in the bit­ter cold of win­ter. Con­se­quently the re­set­tle­ment pro­gram was launched lead­ing to the build­ing of re­set­tle­ment es­tates where, even­tu­ally, all the im­mi­grants were housed.

In the 1980s and 1990s our ur­ban districts were acutely over­crowded. A sec­ond hous­ing mir­a­cle pro­vided the so­lu­tion — the cre­ation of new towns across the New Ter­ri­to­ries where hous­ing units were larger and ameni­ties in­cluded parks, play- The au­thor is a for­mer long-time Chief In­for­ma­tion Of­fi­cer of the Hous­ing Author­ity and Hous­ing Depart­ment and ed­i­tor of sev­eral English-lan­guage pub­li­ca­tions be­fore and af­ter his gov­ern­ment ser­vice.

grounds, su­per­mar­kets and ul­tra-mod­ern shop­ping cen­ters.

So what new hous­ing mir­a­cle might our next Chief Ex­ec­u­tive ini­ti­ate? Might he or she or­der a thor­ough re-eval­u­a­tion of whether chunks of suit­able land could be hived off some of our coun­try parks and used for build­ing res­i­den­tial es­tates?

It’s not a new idea, I re­al­ize, but our hous­ing sit­u­a­tion has never been as se­ri­ous as at the present, and it is in­com­pre­hen­si­ble that suit­able sec­tions of so much land should con­tinue to be ex­cluded from fill­ing such an ur­gent need.

There are 24 coun­try parks and 22 spe­cial ar­eas across the SAR that oc­cupy a large per­cent­age of our to­tal land mass es­ti­mated at a whop­ping 44,300 hectares. The des­ig­nated role of these re­served ar­eas is to pro­vide “nat­u­ral con­ser­va­tion, coun­try­side re­cre­ation and out­doors ed­u­ca­tion”.

It is un­de­ni­able these parks are en­joyed by pic­nick­ers, week­end hik­ers and na­ture-lovers. They at­tract more than 11 mil­lion vis­i­tors ev­ery year, apart from lo­cals seek­ing es­cape from the air pol­lu­tion in some of our crowded ur­ban districts, but tourists who pre­fer pris­tine nat­u­ral beauty over shop­ping. But in our present sit­u­a­tion with so many thou­sands of peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly young cou­ples, des­per­ate to be pro­vided with a roof of their own over their heads, shouldn’t pri­or­i­ties be re-ex­am­ined?

What is the al­ter­na­tive if we con­tinue to pre­serve all the land des­ig­nated as un­touch­able coun­try parks? There isn’t any “Plan B” to fall back to solve the prob­lem. And re­cent events in­volv­ing frac­tious young peo­ple mak­ing all sorts of po­lit­i­cal de­mands sug­gest that when, in­evitably, they take up the strug­gle for a big­ger slice of the sup­posed hous­ing “pie”, it could lead to un­pleas­ant con­se­quences.

Many young cou­ples are presently “squeez­ing in” at the home of a par­ent. The over­crowd­ing is of­ten wors­ened by the ar­rival of a grand­child, stretch­ing to break­ing point the pa­tience of both the old and young. The sit­u­a­tion usu­ally suf­fers fur­ther if the child’s mother, pre­vi­ously a work­ing wife, stays at home to be­come a nurs­ing mother.

On Hong Kong Is­land alone, there are four coun­try parks — Pok Fu Lam, Aberdeen, Tai Tam and Shek O. You will prob­a­bly be sur­prised to learn that Tai Tam Coun­try Park oc­cu­pies 1,315 hectares, com­pris­ing one-fifth of the land that makes up Hong Kong Is­land.

The long­est in our coun­try parks is the 100 km MacLe­hose Trail be­tween Tuen Mun in the west­ern New Ter­ri­to­ries and Sai Kung in the east. It is cer­tainly a chal­leng­ing walk, but barely a pin­prick when com­pared with the depth of to­day’s hous­ing prob­lem. On the one hand it can­not be de­nied that our coun­try parks are home to many of Mother Na­ture’s beau­ties, and that the vast pro­por­tion of it should be pre­served for the peo­ple’s en­joy­ment. But on the other homes for the de­serv­ing are an over­rid­ing ne­ces­sity.

Con­fu­cius says: “The strength of a na­tion de­rives from the in­tegrity of the home.” It’s only log­i­cal de­duc­tion that with so many of our ci­ti­zens with­out a home to call their own, our in­tegrity as a har­mo­nious so­ci­ety will be so much weaker.

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