It was billed as the Urban Forest. When Sir Norman Foster’s master plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District won an international competition in 2011, many attributed its success to the plan for a thickly wooded, 19-hectare park on the western edge of the site. Though all of the competition entries featured the same amount of green space, only Foster had lumped it all together. He promised it would “[bring] the Hong Kong countryside into the city” thanks to a dense concentration of native trees.
Three years later, the Dutch landscape architects chosen to design the park, West8, unveiled a plan that seemed radically denuded compared to Foster’s vision. “It’s about the arts, not trees,” is how a headline in the South China Morning Post interpreted the change. It seems that in order to make way for all of the concerts, festivals and other events that are meant to take place in the cultural district, some of the forest had to be sacrificed.
But make no mistake: there will be trees. You can see them for yourself in the Nursery Park, where 96 different species are growing in preparation of the park’s opening, which is slated for the end of 2018. This weekend, thousands of people will flock to the park for the latest edition of Freespace Happening, where they will enjoy a two-day programme that includes performances by local musicians, a book exchange and post-sunset screenings of two documentaries.
Festival-goers can also take a guided tour of the Nursery Park’s trees. “We are trying to have an educational side so the public can see trees they don’t normally see in the urban areas,” says Jason Teo, one of the people responsible for West Kowloon’s landscape and urban design. On a bright, breezy morning earlier this week, Teo was standing beneath the sturdy trunk of an Elaeocarpus sylvestris, a lollipop-shaped tree that is better known by its Chinese name, saan1 dou6 jing1 (山杜英). “You can see these in the hillsides or mountains,” says Teo. A few of the tree’s leaves are red – like most of Hong Kong’s trees, these are evergreens, so old leaves are immediately replaced by new leaves that gradually change from red to green.
Teo explains the Nursery Park is divided into four zones. There’s a Woodland zone, which consists of large broadleaf trees that you might normally find in the hills of Tai Po or Sai Kung. The Waterfront zone is for trees that can withstand the strong salt winds that blow off the harbour. The Urban Forest zone consists of trees that would be at home along a walkway or street. Fruit trees round out the list in the Orchard zone.
“Most of them are native species – about 60 to 70 percent,” says Teo. But the park is also a test site for a number of exotic species, like plane trees, which are found on the avenues of London, Paris and Shanghai. “They form a canopy over the road and it’s very beautiful,” says Teo. One of the Nursery Park’s planes is thriving, but the others haven’t reacted well to Hong Kong’s hot, humid climate. It’s the same for gingko biloba, which are common on the streets of Beijing and Seoul. “It’s been planted for two and a half years and it’s still only like this,” says Teo, pointing to a sapling that has seen better days. On the other side of a park, the skeleton of an ill-fated cedar brings to mind a rubbish bin after Christmas.
Others trees are doing much better. Like the horsetail trees that have grown wild on the site, Scarlet Grevillea are thriving on the windward side of the park; their wispy leaves are perfectly suited for seaside conditions, which is why you will often find them at Hong Kong’s beaches. Another sturdy survivor is the red-leaf hibiscus, a grove of which is thriving near the park’s seawall. “In the typhoon last August they didn’t suffer a bit,” says Teo. “We had to prune other trees but not these ones.”
Teo doesn’t just love the red-leaf hibiscus trees because they are hardy. For a landscape designer, they are what pigment is to a painter. “They’re dark green with some red, so it’s a good tree to put in the background,” he says. “It makes whatever you put in front stand out.”
That’s part of the truth about a city park: it is as much an artificial space as a natural one. Each tree, each shrub, each curve in the landscape is deliberate. Most of Hong Kong’s parks take a tightly-managed approach to green space, framing trees and shrubs with hard paved areas, like in a formal Spanish or Chinese garden. Another tradition is the one embodied by Frederick Law Olmstead, who went to great lengths to make Central Park seem like a primeval relic.
The West Kowloon park’s designers, West8, are known for an approach that falls somewhere in between. The firm’s most recent project, a new park for Governor’s Island in New York, took a pancake-flat landscape and built dramatic hills that frame views of the surrounding landscape. “We wanted to manipulate the eye to create suspense,” West8’s founder, Adriaan Geuze, told the New Yorker.
Teo says the West Kowloon park will be first and foremost a place for arts and culture. There will be a Great Lawn where 5,000 people can watch a concert, a sculpture garden and indoor venues for theatre, art and live music. But it will also be a carefully crafted natural landscape, with a tree canopy denser than in most Hong Kong parks. One of the reasons plane trees and gingko trees are being tested in the Nursery Park is to introduce an element of seasonality to the park – both of them turn a beautiful shade of yellow in the autumn.
Teo says the park’s designers will make sure it’s a welcoming habitat for all kinds of creatures – not just humans. Bees and birds have already made a home for themselves in the Nursery Park’s trees. “We’ll need to manage them, but they’ll still be there,” says Teo.
Fruit is another thing that will need to be managed. Walking through the Orchard zone, he points out a brownish fruit about the size of a grape. “It’s a jackfruit,” he says. Ripe jackfruits are the size of a watermelon, so they need to be removed before they come crashing down onto a passerby’s head. Same goes for the Kigelia tree, also known as a sausage tree for the shape of its oblong, inedible fruit. “In the New Territories, they like to plant them in front of police stations because the fruits are shaped like cannons,” says Teo. “It’s a feng shui thing.”
Most of the Nursery Park’s trees will grow in pots until they are transplanted during the park’s construction, along with many more trees that are being grown in a nursery in mainland China. But some have already rooted themselves in the ground, like a tall papaya tree that stands near the centre of the park. “These are retained trees,” says Teo. They were never planted – they grew wild after the land for West Kowloon was reclaimed in the 1990s. “We really do want to create an urban forest,” says Teo. And some of the work is already done.
The next Nursery Park tree tours will take place at 2pm on October 8 and 9, 2016. and subsequently during each Freespace event. Click here for more information.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistook Scarlet Grevillea for horsetail trees. While there are horsetail trees growing in West Kowloon, they are not part of the Nursery Park. We apologise for the error.