20,000 New Trees Aren’t Enough: Hong Kong’s Effort to Go Green

There’s something odd in front of the Kowloon United Church on Jordan Road: a tree planted right in the roadway. It’s a sturdy-looking specimen of Crateva unilocularis, better known here as the spider tree (or “vegetable top tree” in Cantonese – syu6 tau4 coi3 樹頭菜). Spider trees aren’t unusual in Hong Kong, where their hardiness and broad canopy have made them a popular street tree. Or at least that used to be the case, because in many parts of the city’s congested urban areas, there aren’t any street trees left at all. This particular spider tree is a rare survivor of the days when many of Hong Kong’s major roads were lined by trees planted in the ground adjacent to footpaths. As the city grew ever busier, they were nearly all chopped down to make way for more motor vehicle traffic. 

They were called tree parks, but they were stolen, and they’re car parks now,” says landscape architect Gavin Coates. He documented the Jordan Road spider tree in a video for the University of Hong Kong’s Division of Landscape Architecture, where he lectures and maintains a project called the Digital Arboretum, which catalogues Hong Kong flora. 

HKU landscape students imagine a tree-lined Des Voeux Road. Image courtesy Gavin Coates

We wrote about Hong Kong’s missing trees in 2019, documenting the historic decline of urban street trees, along with the disappearance of landmark wall trees – banyans that have grown spontaneously in the granite retaining walls common in the oldest parts of Hong Kong Island. Now, after three years stuck in a pandemic when outdoor activities and public spaces have become more cherished than ever, we wanted to check in to see the state of the city’s urban greenery. The good news is that there’s likely more greenery in Hong Kong’s built-up areas than at any time in the past few decades. The bad news: without a fundamental change in the way Hong Kong thinks about urban space, we’ve hit a wall. “Everything that can be done within the present paradigm has basically been done,” says Coates. “The only way to have a greener city is to make space for it.”

Coates would know. For more than a decade, he helped spearhead a government effort to squeeze as much vegetation as possible into Hong Kong’s concrete jungle. He has catalogued many of the initiative’s successes in a series of before-and-after photos on his personal website. They underline how grim and inhospitable many of Hong Kong’s streets are, and how even a single tree can take the edge off, making a space feel softer, more inviting and more humane. And they prompt the startling revelation that all of these interventions have gone largely unheralded, perhaps because the results feel so obviously right and natural. It doesn’t take long for a tree or roadside garden to feel like it’s always been there. 

The impact has been significant. In Yau Ma Tei and Mongkok alone, 4,000 trees and 2.6 million shrubs have been planted. But getting each one in the ground was a feat, which is where Coates came in. He first arrived in Hong Kong in 1982 as a private landscape architect who worked on re-greening hills that had been stripped to provide material for land reclamation. “Some of the areas that were re-greened have more trees than the original hillsides,” he says. He also worked on government projects like Yuen Long Park, a 7.5-hectare hillside oasis that opened in 1991, combining densely wooded areas with — unusually for Hong Kong at the time — a sprawling lawn that is beloved by picnickers. “Then I took a 15-year hiatus to work as an illustrator and cartoonist,” he says.

It was the opportunity to inject greenery into Hong Kong’s urban areas that pulled Coates back into landscape architecture. In 2004, the Civil Engineering and Development Department launched the Greening Master Plan, which was developing a strategy to add trees and shrubs wherever possible in the built-up parts of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. Coates joined in 2005 to help lead the planning and implementation. “It was very exciting being on site and supervising the breaking up of concrete and creating planting areas and seeing the trees coming in on trucks and then going into the ground,” he says.

Greening Master Plan results in front of the Central Star Ferry Pier. Photos courtesy Gavin Coates

Coates says the plan was divided into three phases. First were the easy wins: things that could realistically be implemented within a few years. The second involved recommendations for government facilities. And the third? “Fantasy ideas, of which none have come about,” says Coates. This mainly involved street trees – a green canopy that would beautify the city, cool streets down by providing shade, and help scrub the air clean of Hong Kong’s notoriously bad roadside air pollution.

Even the first phase was challenging. First, Coates’ team had to find the right species, because some of the trees favoured by colonial-era planners — like banyans or flame trees — grow too aggressively, tearing up footpaths with their enormous root systems, which eventually succumb to rot and disease as they reach the limits of their growth in an inhospitable concrete environment. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which manages greenery on Hong Kong’s streets, prefers low-maintenance species like palms that have a small footprint, don’t drop too many leaves and aren’t home to noisy birds that wake up nearby residents.

Finding suitable sites was like hunting for a piece in a massive jigsaw puzzle. The Highways Department and Transport Department imposed restrictions on where trees could actually be planted – nothing within five metres of a lamppost, for instance, in case it blocks the light. And even if a site seemed suitable on the surface, Coates says what’s underneath is often “a spaghetti of utilities” that make it impossible to plant anything. “Sometimes we lift up the footpath and there are so many utilities you can’t get a chopstick in between all the cables and pipes.”

Then there was public opinion. “The street belongs to nobody and everybody, and everybody has something to say about it,” says Coates. Though attitudes have since changed, many Hongkongers in the early 2000s were suspicious of nature; it was something that belonged in the countryside, not the city. Retailers worried their shop signs would be hidden by foliage. Upstairs residents thought the trees and shrubs would attract insects. “It almost becomes like a psychological master plan rather than a greening master plan,” says Coates. “It was fraught with frustration. It sounds so simple – trees have been growing for millions of years, even without us being on the planet. But actually getting them planted along streets, it’s incredibly difficult.”

Student mockup of a Tsuen Wan road with more trees. Image courtesy Gavin Coates

Still, there were plenty of successes. Coates says 20,000 trees were planted in the older urban areas from 2005 to 2015, along with millions of shrubs. Bright orange flowers and tropical shrubs have taken the place of red brick pavers on Johnston Road. A forlorn concrete tarmac along the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter has been transformed into a lushly forested promenade. Coates is particularly proud of the 90 foxtail palms that were planted in the median of Hennessy Road in Wan Chai. “It’s the narrowest median where you can possibly plant palm trees – we even had to saw off part of the root ball to fit them in,” he says. “But not one has fallen, even in a typhoon. They’ve done beautifully.”

The fact that Coates and his team had to shave down the palm trees’ root balls to squeeze them into the narrow median highlights the biggest problem with the government’s initiative. “The term Greening Master Plan was grander than it actually was,” he says. ”It was more like, ‘Let’s see where we can get greening into the footpaths in the urban areas.’ Because the vehicular circulation area, the road, is sacrosanct.” 

It goes back to that lonely spider tree on Jordan Road and the reason why most of Hong Kong’s historic street trees were chopped down. For the past half-century, the main goal of Hong Kong’s streets has been to move as many motor vehicles as possible. That includes lorries and buses, but also a steadily growing number of private cars, even though just seven percent of the population gets around by private vehicle, likely the lowest rate of any city in the developed world. (By contrast, 27 percent of people in London get around by private car, 33 percent in Singapore and 85 percent in Los Angeles.) Coates says that the only way Hong Kong can incorporate more greenery in its urban areas is to reduce the amount of space given over to roads. And for that to happen, Hong Kong will need a radical shift in the way it thinks about urban space.

“We need to move on from the idea of a greening master plan to the idea of a human master plan,” says Coates. “We need to make the city much more enjoyable to hang out instead of just scuttling from one place to another because it’s such a horrible environment. That means a programme of pedestrian priority, which means widening a lot of the footpaths. If we can widen the footpaths, we can get more trees in.”

Community activists and urban design experts have long lobbied for more streets to be pedestrianised or limited to trams and buses, which is the goal of the Des Voeux Road Central Initiative. Coates says many other streets would benefit from larger footpaths, something his students have been keen to mock up in one of the classes he leads at HKU. “Some of these roads are huge – Connaught Road is 11 lanes wide. It’s ridiculous in a city with such little car ownership,” he says. 

Despite years of lobbying, however, there has been little movement on these fronts. But Coates says it’s the only way to truly green the concrete jungle. “There’s this fixation on the idea that we have to provide for cars, that they have a right to be there,” he says. “I don’t believe that. I believe that people have a right to be there. People – and trees.”

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