In contrast to what many people think, there are quite a lot of rural areas on the outskirts of urban Hong Kong, particularly in the New Territories. About 30% of Hong Kong's land area is countryside - excluding developed land and country parks.
Of course, not all rural areas are pristine and natural. In fact, storage yards, car scrapyards, and illegal dumping of construction waste occupy much of the countryside especially near the city. The irony is that, when the government plans development sites, it prioritises agricultural or ecologically rich land. The countryside should not be the land reserve for the city. Society can benefit most when rural land is utilised to its potential, in ways that soundly balance with urban development. Only then can Hong Kong head towards a sustainable and multi-faceted future.
The lands of indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories have been protected by law due to historical factors. Hence, up to this day relatively large areas of flat land have been retained in the countryside. The planning of rural land is outlined by Statutory Plans issued by the Town Planning Board. Land uses include Village Type Development (V), Agriculture (AGR), Green Belt (GB) and Conservation Area (CA), etc. However, in reality rural land use has not followed the Statutory Plans.
Village Type Development is meant to allow indigenous inhabitants to build “small houses” on their land for their own use. Yet through buying such rights, developers have built many low-density private housing estates, which are sold without restriction on the market. In most cases, the original rights owners do not live in these houses.
As for Agriculture (AGR) and Green Belt (GB), the former is reserved for agricultural uses, while the latter is intended to act as a buffer between country parks/protected areas and more developed areas. In general, no housing development is allowed on these two kinds of lands. However, many owners of such lands have converted them to residential use by applying for landuse change permits from the government. Worse still, a legal settlement in the 1993 Melhado Case allowed Agriculture land to be used for storage, and many areas were converted to storage yards - including for shipping containers - and car scrapyards, in effect industrialising the rural land.
Even on Conservation Area (CA), which is designated for conservation use, large-scale land reclamations happen all the time, using “restoring farming” as an excuse. In reality this is to damage to the ecology and so facilitate future applications for landuse changes. The government has failed to prosecute such cases; not even those exposed by the public and media.
On the other hand, many areas of farmland and fish ponds at the outskirts of villages are privately owned. They were either bought up ages ago for hoarding by developers or are awaiting development by the landowners. In either case, the interest is on future property development, and both parties would rather let the lands lie abandoned than rent them out for farming purposes. These lands are often abused as illegal construction waste dumping grounds. The great damage to the environment and ecology makes it much easier to apply for landuse changes later on.
With all this out of control development, many rural lands have become “brownfields” – open storage yards, container storage yards, car scrapyards and recycling yards, etc. The original agriculture or rural landuse is lost, the landscape is damaged, and the uncontrolled landuses bring in traffic, flooding, noise, foul air and waste problems for the countryside.
Over 1,000 hectares of Brownfields
As there is less and less available urban land, the countryside becomes the target fpr development. However, the Hong Kong public has made it clear that priority should be put on "brownfields". According to a study by Liber Research Community, there are 1,192 hectares of brownfields in Hong Kong, equivalent to 63 times the area of Victoria Park. Brownfields have low ecological value and are more easily accessible. If they can be properly developed, on one hand it may improve the currently poor and disorderly environment, while on the other hand ecologically valuable, agricultural and village lands can be protected.
The present rural development is caused in part by the historical factors, as mentioned in the beginning of this article. But of even more concern are the "grey area" in land planning and the huge financial incentives for land development. Landowners abandon, damage or level lands on purpose, and turn them into brownfields. If the policy and legislation are not changed, development of brownfields will lead to exactly what landowners wished for when damaging their land. This will create a vicious cycle that results in more and more land wrecking to create brownfields.
On the other hand, the government has avoided developing brownfields because the land rights issue is complicated. There will be problems in acquiring the land, and relocating or compensating the many operators on the lands. Hence, the government has tended to acquire undeveloped government land or farmland. For example, in the latest North East New Territories New Development Plan, the rural areas chosen for development are of various villages with a total of over 10,000 inhabitants, including active farming villages such as Ma Shi Po Village. A more typical example was the West Rail Project a few years ago, when an area of actively cultivated farmland the size of Long Valley, in Tin Sum Village, was acquired - leading to the fragmentation of various villages in Kam Tin. In the end, the land acquisition was completed and the development project carried out. But the development of ecologically valuable lands and active agricultural lands fragmented the rural area and made future planning way more difficult.
Putting rural land to good use
A sound balance of urban and rural areas should embody the richness and multi-cultural aspects of a society. The countryside can–through various aspects such as housing, culture, environmental protection, food supply and lifestyle–benefit the overall environment and the public.
In bygone days, agriculture and livestock farming thrived in Hong Kong. The rural areas had powerful functions in livelihoods and the economy. Before the mid-20th century, most of the lowland New Territories was occupied by paddy fields which provided a stable local food supply. The special breed of Yuen Long rice was even marketed to different countries. In the 1970s and 1980s, local supplies of poultry met 40% of local demand, while live pigs met 20%. Later, in the face of different factors such as economic transition and cheap food imports, Hong Kong's farming and livestock industry declined, and the roles of rural lands also faded away.
It may seem impossible to reach self-sufficiency in terms of food supply, considering the local population in Hong Kong. But to retain a certain level of local food supply to stabilise society is certainly a must for any place in the world. In addition, local food production greatly reduces food mileage, minimising carbon emissions whilst being more environmentally friendly. At present, local agriculture survives, albeit in a niche. There is a market for organic produce, up-market vegetables, fruits and flowers. And due to public policy support, over 1,000 hectares of fish ponds in the New Territories Northwest produce some 2,000 tonnes of freshwater fish each year.
Preserving aquaculture and agriculture on rural land contributes to the conservation of ecosystems. Farmlands and fish ponds provide feeding ground and habitats for many species wildlife. For example, the large area of farmland in Long Valley is home to over 200 bird species, including the rare Greater Painted-snipe (Rostratula benghalensis), which attracts crowds of birdwatchers every winter. The fish ponds in the New Territories northwest are part of the globally important Ramsar Site, a key foraging ground for migratory waterfowl and many other species.
Many local villages have long histories and have retained their unique cultures, especially celebrations during certain festivals. For instance, many rural communities observe the Hungry Ghost Festival or Tai Ping Qing Jiao (Taoist Celebration). Some even construct a large stage for Cantonese opera performances, which attract large audiences! Different villages may have different ceremonies for celebrating the birth of deities such as Tin Hau, Hung Hsing, Hau Wong and Tam Kung. All these local traditions should be preserved not in museums but in the villages themselves.
Co-existence of the City and the Countryside
A multi-cultural society with a good mix of city and rural life offers more options for urban dwellers. The low-density housing in rural areas is an alternative to the high-density highrises of the city. Some people prefer to get away from the city and become close to the countryside. We should have different choices in housing environments. In addition, many farms provide space where the public can spend their holidays and leisure time in picking crops, feeding animals and tasting local food. Urban people can also experience farming firsthand, by becoming holiday farmers.
The government is keen to locate more land for building houses. It is more acceptable to the public if brownfields instead of rural areas with ecological, cultural and landscape values are developed. In the long run, the government must be stricter in legislation and enforcement targeting environmental damage which is inconsistent with the planning spirit. Illegal dumping of construction waste and levelling of land with “restoring farming” as an excuse must be prohibited. The government and the public should value and plan our countryside with vision, and put away the concept that “rural areas are a land reserve for the city”.
Co-existence of city and countryside are more practical and better meet public expectations and society's needs. As conservation awareness is generally heightened, the public is looking for a multi-cultural and high quality life that is more than a job and an apartment. It is in the best interest of all for the government to provide the public with a sustainable model, blending quality of life with healthy interactions between the city and the countryside.
Text | Henry Lui & Dr. Cheng Luk-ki