Secretary on sustainable land use

The following is the speech by the Secretary for Planning, Environment and Lands, Mr Gordon Siu, on "The Policy of the SAR Government on the Planning and Development of Land" at the Symposium on Guangdong - Hong Kong Sustainable Land Use and Real Estate Development Towards 21st Century today (Wednesday):

Professor Lee Ngok, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Sustainability is a term that is being used very widely in Hong Kong at the moment. You have applied it to Urban and Real Estate Development for this conference. What does it actually mean?

For the ecologist, sustainability requires the conservation of a healthy natural environment. For the urban planner, sustainability requires the provision of land for housing, industry and recreation to support economic and social needs. Clearly there is room for conflict between these two views.

At a basic level, sustainable development is about the recognition that both these views are right, and they need to be put into creative partnership, not into opposition with each other. If economic and social demands are satisfied without regard to environmental impacts, the capacity of the environment to support human life will rapidly be degraded, to the detriment of our cities and societies. But, if economic and social needs are not satisfied for the sake of preserving a pristine environment, then symptoms will develop - overcrowding is one example.

Bringing both objectives into balance is what sustainable development means. The Chief Executive's 1999 Policy Address set out the importance of that balance.

Building understanding of the effects that industrial and urban development have on the capacity of the natural environment to support human activity is vital if our communities are to put the principles of sustainable development into practice. The importance of this understanding were put very clearly in a report made to APEC in 1997 "Degradation of any environmental function through unconscious human negligence weakens the very systems needed to sustain our societies, individually and collectively."

The trends in land use, industrial and urban development and environmental quality in the whole Pearl Delta Region over the last two decades illustrate the inter-relationships vividly. Almost 75 per cent of the land area of the region is hill or mountain. In Hong Kong itself, the proportion is even higher. The remaining relatively flat land provides the space for our towns and for the agriculture that supports the urban populations.

Between 1982 and 1996, the amount of farmland available per person in the region fell by over 50 per cent. This was because of population growth, industrialization and urban development. To get sufficient food from the remaining land, more and more fertilizers and pesticides have to be used. In turn, industrial and human waste has added to the pollution of water, while air emissions have caused acid rain and ozone concentrations that have reduced the productivity of the remaining agricultural land.

Hong Kong has been involved in these processes. The demands of our growing population add to the demands on agricultural land and fresh water supplies in Guangdong. Hong Kong's investments have supported a significant part of the industrial and urban development in the region. The increases in population and economic action in Hong Kong has created demand for goods from the region, and our efficient operation as a transport hub has helped industrial and economic development throughout South China.

But while the interrelationship between Hong Kong and the rest of the region has grown over the years, it has done so in an unstructured way.

For the future, we need to make our development a sustainable one in which we support each other economically, socially and environmentally, and by so doing achieve more than each part could do in isolation.

How do we apply the concept of sustainable development in Hong Kong, and in the region?

Let me start by considering Hong Kong's own use of land.

At present we have a population of 6.8 million. It is well known that we have some of the highest densities of population to be found anywhere in the world, over 50,000 per square kilometer in places. What is less well known is that only 20 per cent of our land area is urbanized, and only one fifth of that is used for housing. We have kept huge areas of land for the conservation of natural ecology and for the aesthetic and recreational enjoyment of the community.

Over the next 15 years our population is likely to increase to well over 8 million. More land will be needed to provide housing for those extra people, to provide schools for their children, shops to meet their needs and offices to employ them.

There are two ways of meeting those increasing needs. One is simply to respond after they become apparent. The other is to anticipate, to lay out areas for natural and for human growth to ensure that a larger population can have its homes and its gardens, its employment and its recreation.

I said there were two ways, but clearly there is no choice for a community that hopes to live in a sustaining environment. Only the second course makes sense.

What is true in Hong Kong is true across the region. If the region simply responds to social and economic pressures it will not be able to shape those pressures constructively. Our land and cities will develop sporadically, will become more polluted, our societies more unbalanced and our environment less able to support us. If, on the other hand, we share our knowledge of people's hopes, of environmental capacities and of land resources, we can anticipate needs and plan a more sustainable future together.

That was the pledge made by the Governor of Guangdong and the Chief Executive in their joint statement on 6th October. That statement set out commitments not just to address common environmental concerns over water and air quality and increase co-operation on conservation and forestation, but it set out a pledge to plan and build a more sustainable region together, and it set out a mechanism to turn that pledge into an active partnership.

Already official contacts are taking place to prepare the next steps. Today's symposium and others like it that will follow are helping to build the partnership at a wider level. From Hong Kong, planners, engineers, environmental scientists, academics and businessmen are eager to support and develop this regional partnership for a sustainable future.

The thought that I would like to leave you with is that the partnership should not be limited to the process of drawing two dimensional plans on maps. A sustainable future is one in which we create buildings that use materials wisely and use energy efficiently. It requires urban designs that respond to the culture and encourage the creativity of our people. It requires an attention to detail that responds to human and to natural needs.

The most important ingredient in planning our way forward is people, people like you. Men and women with vision, with skills and experience, and with willingness to learn more. Above all, people will hope that, together, we can make a better future, for ourselves and for our children, in this region which is our home.

End/Wednesday, November 3, 1999