The government has underestimated the amount of degraded rural land available for redevelopment into housing by nearly 380 hectares – enough to build 95,000 new homes, according to a new study by two Hong Kong advocacy groups.
In a joint report, Greenpeace East Asia and Liber Research Community said a previous government assessment of so-called brownfield sites – abandoned agricultural plots often occupied by warehouses and car parks – used outdated data, was too cursory and left an entire district out of its findings.
While a government task force had identified redeveloping brownfield sites as a viable short- to medium-term option for easing land-starved Hong Kong’s housing crunch, it ultimately deemed massive reclamation projects the best long-term solution.
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But the new report questions that conclusion, identifying about 1,950 hectares of brownfields scattered across Hong Kong – 379 hectares more than the government’s study turned up. The newly identified areas alone are equivalent to 20 Victoria Parks.
“If the government had done its job properly, they would have found that Hong Kong has many brownfield sites that could be used for development. Brownfields are a good source of land to build housing. There is no need for land reclamation or to develop country parks,” Greenpeace campaigner Chan Hall-sion said.
The NGOs called on authorities to explore the feasibility of making use of the 379 additional hectares, which they estimated could yield about 95,000 flats, even if half of the sites were developed at low to medium density. The number of resulting units would be equivalent to the total amount of public housing built in the last six years.
The government’s two-year study, which concluded in November of 2019, identified 450 hectares of brownfield sites in the New Territories with a high or medium level of potential for development into public housing.
It further shortlisted 12 brownfield clusters covering 47 hectares for development. With adjoining land parcels, the sites were expected to yield more than 30,000 homes.
Officials also said that not all operations currently occupying brownfields should be removed, as some contributed to the local economy.
But Liber and Greenpeace said the official study relied on outdated data and failed to account for “hidden brownfields” – or ones reclaimed by vegetation – and accused authorities of downplaying the sites’ potential for boosting land supply.
The researchers adopted a similar methodology as the government, using aerial photos, satellite imagery and other relevant planning data and survey maps.
In one of the findings, they located a brownfield – used as an open-air storage area in San Tin – that had been growing since 2017, and had doubled in size between October and December 2019, according to satellite and aerial imagery.
The recent sprawl was left off of the government’s brownfield map, however, because it had referenced a satellite image from 2015.
For the same reason, the groups identified 10.3 hectares of brownfields at Ma On Kong in Yuen Long – 3.5 hectares more than the government – even though the new sites were only 200 metres away from a cluster earmarked by officials for development.
“If the authorities had included those brownfields, the entire area could possibly have higher development potential for public housing,” said Caesar Choi Lok-ching, a member of Liber, which focuses on land and development policies.
The two groups also identified 4.7 hectares’ worth of brownfield sites in Chuen Lung and Wo Yi Hop Village that went uncounted by the government because the entirety of Tsuen Wan district had been left out of the earlier study.
One of the brownfields near the village, used as a car garage, even encroached into the Shing Mun Country Park, with construction waste dumped on the protected land.
In another finding, the researchers found that the government did not count about 70 hectares of so-called hidden brownfields, obscured by vegetation.
One example was Hung Lung Hang, where historical satellite images showed a parcel of land going from overgrown to paved over, and back again, over the course of the last 20 years.
Liber and Greenpeace urged authorities to prioritise the relocation of affected occupants and the development of such brownfields for housing before considering more expensive and environmentally damaging alternatives, such as land reclamation.
For sites unsuitable for housing, they added, officials should consider building multi-storey blocks to house brownfields’ current occupants in a more orderly fashion, rather than leaving their workshops and storage areas scattered around haphazardly.
“The government should not consider reclamation and developing country parks until they have exhausted all of their existing resources, namely brownfields,” Choi said.
In a reply to the Post, the Planning Department acknowledged that the information used in the government study might not reflect the latest land conditions, but said it would continue to monitor changes in brownfield sites.
It also pointed out that the government had already earmarked more than 860 hectares of brownfields for use in public or private development projects.
This article Hong Kong housing: NGOs find enough previously unidentified brownfield sites to build 95,000 homes first appeared on South China Morning Post