In Focus: Greening Hong Kong

As one of the world’s densest cities, Hong Kong is known for its tightly packed residential complexes. But many don’t realise that Hong Kong’s green spaces – including 24 protected country parks and 22 special conservation areas – account for 75 per cent of the 1,100-square-kilometre territory.  

Thanks in part to a sub-tropical climate (mild winters, hot and humid summers, lots of rain and nearly year-round sunshine), the city is home to a wealth of biodiversity, spanning some 5,600 different species, from the rare pink dolphin to the ring-tailed lemur, the Chinese pangolin and purple heron. 

There are also at least 3,300 native and exotic plant species, including the purplish red bauhinia flower (a city emblem), the pink-hued Hong Kong camellia flower, and the wild kumquat.

But with the city’s urban boundaries expanding deeper into the wild, some worry that the city could lose its ecological assets.

Established in 1968, The Conservancy Association (CAHK) is dedicated to preserving these natural treasures, raising awareness about the city’s biodiversity and helping urbanites become environmental custodians.

“The Conservancy Association is Hong Kong’s longest-running conservation charity – it was founded by a group of expatriates who wanted to protect the environment,” says CAHK Campaign Manager Roy Hei Man Ng. 

More than 50 years later, the association not only advocates for greater environmental awareness but also runs two agricultural initiatives, promotes nature and heritage conservation, combats eco-vandalism, and lobbies for waste reduction and recycling – all part of its efforts to lead Hong Kong down a more sustainable path.  

Roy Hei Man Ng. Credit: Karma Lo

Nurturing Nature

From April to November every year, CAHK invites volunteers to join day-trips to Long Valley Ecopaddy in the New Territories, one of the charity’s sustainable agricultural projects.

When volunteers arrive in the countryside, they meet with farmers and learn how to plant and harvest rice, dry and mill the grains, and ultimately cultivate a new appreciation for food production.

Running for the past several decades, these immersive outings not only help urbanites reconnect with nature but also serve as an important way for CAHK to build relationships with the farmers and local residents in Hong Kong’s rural areas. 

By establishing these connections, CAHK hopes to help farmers use the land and natural resources in a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable way in the face of rapid socio-economic changes.

That might mean incorporating permaculture, biodynamic or hydroponic practices that reduce pollution, while simultaneously maintaining healthy soil, managing water usage and promoting biodiversity. 

Time is of the essence: Local farmland is quickly shrinking, often cleared away to develop new housing complexes and commercial spaces. “Farmland in Hong Kong decreased from 6,080 hectares in 1997 to 4,330 hectares in 2018 [or nearly 30 per cent in just two decades],” Ng laments. 

For inspiration, the association looks to Japan’s Satoyama Initiative. Supported by more than 250 member organisations worldwide, the programme integrates sustainable practices into agricultural, forestry and fishery businesses to allow biodiversity to flourish alongside human activity. “To move forward, we don’t have to go backward [into the stone age],” adds Ng. 

The Satoyama Initiative, Ng says, offers many successful case studies that demonstrate how Hongkongers can adapt. These include reintroducing endangered species, promoting terraced rice paddies to prevent erosion and run-off, and rehabilitating wasteland, amongst others.

“It is necessary for the government to introduce policies to protect rural areas and recognise rural sustainability,” he says, of his lobbying work.

“Quite often, locals cannot foresee how rural livelihoods [such as farming, or running a local business servicing the community] can take place in a sustainable way. The result is that they often give up their land to property developers for a profit.”

In addition to its work with farmers, CAHK also strives to preserve natural and cultural assets for future generations. For example, in areas of conservation importance – such as Long Valley, a well-known bird-watching spot, and Lai Chi Wo, the site of an ancient Hakka village – the charity empowers residents to be stewards of these treasures through educational initiatives, clean-up campaigns and the creation of new eco-tourism jobs.

Back in Town 

While much of the group’s work focuses on rural initiatives, the association also seeks to improve Hong Kong’s dense cityscape. The group continuously encourages the government and property developers to plant trees and incorporate more parks downtown, which Ng says tends to feel like “a concrete jungle” due to a lack of greenery.

“We [believe] that having more trees around can increase the quality of life,” says Ng. “Trees can reduce pollution and improve air quality. And in the summer, bigger trees with large canopies provide shade and relief from the heat.”

Throughout history, trees have been an important part of the city’s character and culture.

Even the name Hong Kong, meaning ‘Fragrant Harbour’ in Chinese, can be traced to 1780, when villagers named the city after the aromatic incense tree, also known as agarwood. 

In recent decades, illegal logging has decimated the species. Agarwood has become so rare that global environmental watchdog, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, added the tree to its Red List of Threatened Species, which serves as an inventory of the world’s most ‘vulnerable’ species.

And though the city’s most common trees – cotton, golden trumpets, fig, bottlebrush, gum and mango – may not be threatened with extinction, Ng says they are still disappearing from urban landscapes. 

While no exact figures exist regarding the rate of urban deforestation in Hong Kong, Ng says the increasing pressure to develop more space for human activity since the 1990s has changed the ratio of nature-to-concrete:

“Trees in urban areas have been substantially felled to give way to commercial complexes, residential apartments, roads and highways.”

All Hands on Deck

Whether it’s through trips to the countryside or school workshops downtown, CAHK nurtures the public’s love for nature in myriad ways.

“We design different education programmes to suit people across age groups,” Ng adds, noting that the organisation even holds events for couples with infants, so babies can connect with the outdoors.  

For older children, the association organises school talks on environmental protection and environmentally-themed plays, dubbed “green dramas.”

And for adults, the group offers many volunteer programmes, ranging from conservation lessons to forest guard training. As forest guards, volunteers survey and protect an assigned natural area.  

Wyee Lee, a CAHK forest guard, is one of many Hongkongers whose passion for nature evolved through the charity’s educational programmes.

As a bassoon player and music teacher, 38-year-old Lee had long been interested in learning more about trees, since wood affords instruments their rich sound, depth and range.

“We believe that having more trees around can increase quality of life.”

Roy Hei Man Ng

“The bassoon is the longest woodwind instrument in an orchestra – something we bassoon players are proud of. However in the woods, you notice every tree is taller than a bassoon,” she says. “This is why I am interested in learning more about trees. They are so grand, mysterious and fascinating.”

To become a forest guard, Lee underwent a year of training and learned to monitor conservation areas with other forest guards. “Up in the mountains, we visit trees to check on their health and we also plant saplings,” she says of her volunteer work. “About once a week, I go back and measure the trees’ height, check its condition, count the leaves, and so on.”

Lee says she has also learned how to identify trees and recognise which species, such as the agarwood, need special protection. “One time after a typhoon, three forest guards and I went to check on saplings in Tai Lam Country Park.

One sapling was almost crushed by a fallen tree, but because it had grown and split into two stems, the second sapling was saved,” says Lee. “We worked together to move [and replant] the sapling, and it continues to be cared for today.” 

As for the knowledge she has gained as a CAHK forest guard, Lee says: “I want to keep learning and visiting the forests. I hope my knowledge [about caring for trees and conservation] is useful and can be applied to grow more forests someday.”

Old & Valuable Trees

The Conservancy Association advocates for Hong Kong’s biodiversity, sustainable farming practices and greater environmental awareness. 

Across the city, there are more than 1,200 aptly named ‘stone wall trees,’ the vines of which seem to engulf stone retaining walls. Some of the oldest can be found along Ship Street in Wan Chai. The trees’ exact ages are unknown, but they are thought to have lived for more than a century.

Forbes Street in Kennedy Town is home to several stone wall trees. Their intertwining roots help prevent landslides and stabilise the historic stone walls along which they grow. Some experts estimate the trees to be about 120 years old.

At Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, the famed flowering white jade orchid tree was planted more than a century ago.