I was recently among a small group of people from Living Cheung Chau and the Association for a Beautiful Hong Kong who visited an urban park in north Cheung Chau together with a team from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD). Our primary focus was on recently installed railings – as a Living Cheung Chau member believed far more had been added than was really necessary.
During discussions, there was agreement that some of the new railings could indeed be removed. But also, after looking around the park, I remarked that there were very few plant species in the flowerbeds, and there was great scope for improvement. Plus, with more species of plants, the park would be richer in biodiversity, such as through attracting more birds and butterflies.
“Biodiversity” may seem a rather fancy, almost technical term. Yet really it’s simply about numbers of plants and animal species, and abundance of individuals. With its sub-tropical climate and natural habitats ranging from sea, through mangroves and mudflats to rivers, forests and hills, Hong Kong is home to high biodiversity, with over 3000 species of flowering plants, over 300 tree species, more than 230 species of butterflies and just over 500 bird species.
And yet, how much of this biodiversity do you or most Hongkongers really experience on a day-to-day basis? How many birds do you see or hear, how many butterflies and dragonflies do you come across, how many kinds of trees and flowers are in your neighbourhood?
For most people, biodiversity is surely something that is mostly “out there”, someplace beyond where they live and work. Urban parks offer an outstanding opportunity to partly remedy this situation.
Before writing this article, I emailed the LCSD, asking about Hong Kong’s urban parks and biodiversity, and noting some shortcomings. I received a reply from an anonymous spokesperson, pointing out some of the good things being done – like planting over 2.8 million shrubs/trees last year, and using the “right species for the right place” to select plants. But the email gave no solid information on animal species found in our parks, and ignored issues such as my comment that perhaps dead leaves are often swept from soil for the sake of cleanliness.
On the LCSD website, there is a section about a Green Hong Kong Campaign. Looking through it, I get the impression that there is official confusion, as though the concept of “green” begins and ends with adding the colour green: grow plants that make an area look green, and that will suffice, job done. There are photos with ornamental plants, but scant information on biodiversity. A section on birds covers a mere 21 species – just four percent of Hong Kong’s total.
Compare information on New York’s Central Park, which notes that over 230 bird species may be found there, which is around half the total for New York State. This impressive tally is partly a result of the park having a range of habitats, including some areas that were created by people, but have been allowed to develop like wild woodland.
According to the anonymous spokesperson, Hong Kong’s urban parks now have 35 “conservation corners”, and vegetation clearance is kept to a minimum, to preserve wildlife habitats. But picture a typical urban park, and I expect you picture a place with concrete paths between closely cropped lawns, lines of trees, and neatly manicured flowerbeds. There isn’t much space for any wildness.
So, what would I suggest? Mainly, I think, that the LCSD management consider whether having more biodiversity in our parks would indeed be worthwhile and – if so – have the courage to implement policies that can realise this goal. This would involve seeking advice of experts outside the department, and outside government; and allowing areas of some parks to become wilder.
Benefits would include parks becoming home to far more of Hong Kong’s plants and animals. This could help with conservation of some species, but will also make the parks more enjoyable to visit: even people with no expert knowledge of birds, butterflies and beautiful plants enjoy seeing and photographing them.
More biodiversity will involve areas perhaps looking messier to some people’s eyes. But education will be needed, too, such as explaining that dead leaves on soil are not “dirty”: they quickly decay to become food for plants. More education will be possible, as city parks bring people and wildlife closer together.
It is not just the LCSD that can become involved in such efforts. So too might the Civil Engineering and Development Department, which is currently implementing a Greening Master Plan; and the Lands Department, such as with the slopes it manages.
Such initiatives would dovetail with the Environment and Nature Bureau’s current efforts to develop a Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. By making the city home to more of our native plants and animals, it would bring us just a little closer to living in harmony with nature. With wildlife as neighbours, we might have more chance of achieving real sustainable development.
Written for Ming Pao Weekly; published [in Chinese] during April 2013
Green Hong Kong Campaign
West Kowloon woodland should have native species
Excellent letter from Prof CY Jim to S China Morning Post, published on 17 Aug:
[quote]Bona fide woodland park needs native species, not artefacts
I echo K. N. Wai's letter on behalf of the Hong Kong Alternatives ("Swift action needed to create world-class park at arts hub", August 6).
I want to see the creation of a bona fide woodland park, not a second-rate parody. The woodland should occupy not less than 75 per cent of the site area and the bulk (over 90 per cent) of the site should be covered by soil with vegetation.
It should be composed of native tree species, and plenty of them are well suited for the site.
Concrete, asphalt, tile or other artificial paving materials, and unnecessary and visually obtrusive metal railings, should not be used.
A natural woodland does not have such artefacts.
The species palette should be determined as soon as possible.
As native species are seldom raised by tree nurseries in the region, advanced ordering is a must to tackle the critical supply bottleneck.
Otherwise, they will be substituted by commonplace exotic species. We have to pre-empt this eventuality, which may make or mar the scheme.
The park should not be adulterated by structures unrelated to its core function – as a venue for informal outdoor recreation in a natural setting. Plenty of land has been allocated adjoining the park for cultural buildings; there is no justification to intrude into the park to build more.
The lack of progress in park design is worrying. As an integral component of the West Kowloon Cultural District, its planning is evidently lagging behind other built structures.
It should not be relegated to a secondary or peripheral position. It will be a travesty of justice if funding for the park is fleeced to subsidise expensive cultural buildings. The park will enrich our culture and play an equally important social-cultural role as concert halls and museums. Please treat it with equal opportunity and enthusiasm.
Fine examples of urban woodland in other cities could serve as sources of inspiration, such as Berlin, London, Le Havre, Leipzig, Milan, Paris and Tokyo.
The key green infrastructure project has the potential to become a world-class signature project and a source of pride. Properly designed, it will provide salubrious enjoyment to generations of citizens who will be truly grateful for the attractive public amenity.
I plead with the government not to squander it. Let us join hands to turn the dream into reality.
C. Y. Jim, chair professor, department of geography, University of Hong Kong[/quote]
HK urban parks should nurture butterflies
Hong Kong’s urban parks need ‘nature corners’ to nurture city’s ‘rich diversity’ of butterfly life, HKU experts urge
Study by University of Hong Kong ecologists finds environmental and spatial designs of downtown parks crucial to protecting city’s 250 species, in the absence of more dedicated nature reserves