Hong Kong’s street trees could soon be decimated, as thousands of trees reach the end of their newly-defined “Useful Life Expectancy” (ULE) and the government’s “Right Tree, Right Place” initiative launched in December gives priority to vehicles and building frontages in deciding whether a new tree should be planted.
“Some trees have out-grown their compact urban environments or are reaching the end of their life-cycle and are no longer appropriate,” says the Development Bureau’s Street Tree Selection Guide report which aims to guide the future selection and feasibility of street trees in Hong Kong.
ULE is an estimate of how long a tree is likely to beneficially contribute and remain in the landscape based on health, amenity, environmental services, cultural contributions to the community that warrants the cost of maintenance. A tree is deemed to have reached the end of its ULE when the tree maintenance costs outweigh the tree benefits provided.
On the surface, ULE and “Right Tree, Right Place” aim to address an ageing tree population and prepare the city for climate change through establishing a robust new urban forest with resilience to heat, drought and flooding.
Older trees can certainly be dangerous: a falling bough from a 40-year old Indian Rubber tree killed a pedestrian, Ms. Jumiati Supadi, earlier this year. However, in Ms. Supadi’s case there have been found to be numerous conflicts of interest and murky connections between the contractors responsible for assessing the risks of the tree and for carrying out protection work:, corruption may be as much to blame for her tragic death as an ageing tree branch (see graphic below).
While the government does not have figures on how many trees have reached the end of their “useful” lives, the number of acacia trees (the most common tree in Hong Kong) culled annually has already risen 35% to 3,179 per year since 2012, with 13,000 acacia trees officially felled by government agencies between 2012 and 2017. Of these, just 340 were replaced as part of a pilot “Enhancement of Vegetated Slopes Programme” run by the Highways Department (HyD).
A tree-free Caine Road?
Blue Skies China estimates around 30,000 acacia trees are at risk of felling under the ULE rule and which might not be replaced under the “Right Place” criteria of “Right Tree, Right Place”. These include trees located in business pedestrian or vehicle flow areas, and where newer more stringent requirements would preclude any significant tree planting.
Critically, the new guidelines would exclude replacing old trees on sidewalks where there is less than two metres width, within five metres of bus stops, or near vehicle kerbside activities such as loading/unloading. A simple survey of typical Hong Kong streets shows that few built-up streets would pass either the new “kerbside” test, or the “two metre width” test. For example the entire length of main thoroughfare Caine Road does not have a single location which would meet the new tree guidelines, failing either on building frontage, kerbside activities or being less than two metres wide for pedestrians. Existing trees may be removed under government guidelines and not replaced, leaving Caine Road without a single street tree. The same applies to many part of Bonham Road, which would fail on kerbside activity, sidewalk width or building frontage.
Poor conservation record
Even before “Right Tree Right Place”, Hong Kong development has a poor track record in retaining or conserving trees. For example, a redevelopment of theme park Ocean Park in 2006 called for the felling of 824 trees out of 2,188 surveyed (37% of trees), with felled trees not necessarily diseased or old but simply not eye-catching enough. “A good tree has to be located or positioned prominently or ‘eye-catching’ to get visual attention and thus to be admired; a good tree screened by other trees, and/or located in inaccessible areas may not be considered to have high value,” said an 2006 AECOM report requesting rezoning for the leisure park’s development and creating space for a future MTR station entrance. Or take the Environmental Impact Assessment report for the Sha Lo Tung Road Improvement project, the construction of of a 55,000 sq metres development including a 60,000 slot private columbarium. The project felled 338 (29%) of the trees in the development area and approach road, with compensatory trees to be planted in an “ecological reserve” – an already forested area. Such “tree sinks” allowing developers to make promises of tree replacement by moving wooded areas into existing wooded areas appears to be of dubious environmental or ecological value.
Not exactly a “tree hugging” government
It’s popular to say Hong Kong’s government “hates trees” – this would be unfair to the many dedicated people from AFCD, CEDD, HyD, DSD (pick your acronym) who work hard to maintain Hong Kong’s trees, and put a great deal of energy into making sure our trees are both safe and suitable. A look at the preservation of, for example, the 400-year-old Banyan tree in Kowloon Park puts paid to the “hate trees” moniker: but it’s not beyond imagination that the current leadership loves economic growth more than it loves the environment.
And sad to say, Hong Kong’s leadership lacks environmental credibility. Countless scandals have befallen the city’s civil engineering projects this year alone, from tree management to MTR construction to the faked mega-bridge concrete testing results, with a litany of corruption, coverups and anti-competitive behaviour – even the Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng lives in a house replete with unauthorised building works.
The sudden activity promoting “Right Tree, Right Place” must be viewed with suspicion, and cynicism is warranted. While parts of “Right Place” are said to be in pedestrians’ interests, the two metre rule, for example, feels more like an excuse to remove trees rather than to put pedestrians first – if the government truly wished to make the streets more walkable for “wheeled walkers” and other pedestrians, it would honour the two-metre rule in its other activities, removing roadsigns, litter bins and other street furniture which block wheelchairs and baby strollers; or by enforcing on-sidewalk parking rules. As there are few sidewalks greater than two metres wide (and where there are, they are often blocked by cars, hawkers or shop-extensions illegally seizing the valuable space), using pedestrian benefits as a reason to remove trees is bogus.
And when we have a government who says “the life-cycle of trees can be extended beyond senescence by proper use of the felled trees such as recycling them into useful wood products,” it’s time to worry. Commercial premises, shopfronts and vehicles will win, pedestrians and fresh air will lose. It is up to us all, as citizens or environmental activists, to ensure that a tree cull does not leave us with concrete streets, that we are not fobbed off with “cull one (on High Street), plant one (in a New Territories mountain forest)” and that we continue to ask difficult questions of the government over the greening of our streets.