The Unexpected Link Between Hong Kong’s Urban Spaces and the Global Climate Crisis

Last May, a gaggle of people trudged through Central behind a guide holding a green flag. From afar, it must have looked like any other tour group in a city full of them, but this was no ordinary excursion. The flag bore the imprint of the CCA—the Canadian Centre for Architecture—and the tour was made up of a motley assortment of architects, academics and students. They were in Central to explore the district’s hidden geography: its link to environmental destruction around the world.

climate“The tour helped us make the connection between the physical spaces in the financial district and these intangible things happening around the world,” says Maxime Decaudin, an assistant lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s landscape architecture division. Along with his colleague Sben Korsh, an HKU teaching assistant and MPhil candidate in the history and theory of architecture and urbanism, Decaudin is an Emerging Curator for 2018-19 at the CCA, a Montreal-based museum, archive and research institute. Rather than put together a traditional exhibition, they decided to create Market Landscape, a kind of virtual show that will include web content and an audio documentary based on walking tours in Hong Kong and London.

“We want people to think about the spaces in which they sit and eat a sandwich,” says Korsh. The world is plunging headfirst into a climate crisis, with rising global temperatures wreaking havoc on natural ecosystems and human life alike. Research shows that it is the world’s largest companies that contribute the most to global warming; just 100 corporations are responsible for 71 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, according to environmental groups Carbon Disclosure Project and the Climate Accountability Institute. And it’s the world’s banks that finance this destruction.

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An office worker in Cheung Kong Park – Photo by Christopher DeWolf

This can seem awfully abstract when you are sitting next to the serene water buffalo sculptures of Exchange Square, or in the carefully manicured gardens of Cheung Kong Park. Korsh and Decaudin thought it was time to make the links between Hong Kong’s economy and climate change more explicit. 

They began by digging into exactly how money flows from Hong Kong to environmentally harmful industries. Until 2017, HSBC was one of the world’s largest financiers of palm oil plantations, which have wiped out vast tracts of Indonesian rainforests, often illegally. (It has since backed away from those investments due to public pressure.) CK Hutchison Holdings owns Husky Oil, which is deeply involved in Alberta’s tar sands. “What I’ve been surprised by is how easily this information is available,” says Korsh. “How is it not in the public imaginary that it’s the financial institutions that are responsible for environmental destruction and climate change?” 

The next step was to interview people like Kanahus Manuel, a third-generation Indigenous activist in British Columbia, and anti-pipeline crusader Rita Wong. Both have been fighting against exploitation of the tar sands, which began in earnest after oil prices rose in the 2000s. Oil is extracted in a process that ravages local forests, waterways and Indigenous settlements while also producing a huge amount of carbon emissions. Beyond the environmental damage, pipelines leading away from the tar sands are associated with so-called “man camps” – temporary settlements home to pipeline workers that have been linked to the abduction and murder of many Indigenous girls and women, a situation recently described as genocide by a Canadian government commission. 

climateFinally, Korsh and Decaudin spoke to architects like Remo Riva, who designed Exchange Square, in order to understand how Central’s landscape emerged. That provided the foundation for the two walking tours that took place in May. A select group of people were invited to take part, including landscape architect Cecilia Chu, architect Merve Bedir, M+ architecture and design curator Shirley Surya and geographer Lachlan Barber. “We wanted to pull together people who might have sway in the public’s understanding of the urban environment,” says Korsh.

The first group set out on a muggy day. “It was around 30, 32 degrees,” says Decaudin. “And it was that Hong Kong kind of wet,” adds Korsh. Undaunted, they proceeded to Cheung Kong Park. 

This lush green space, designed by architect Anthony Hui, sits behind the headquarters of CK Hutchison Holdings, a multinational conglomerate whose roots can be traced back to 1979, when Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing bought Hutchison Whampoa—an old British trading house—from HSBC. The park works well as a symbol of how Hong Kong finance is linked to the global environment. For one thing, it’s a lush yet artificial space built atop a car park, with rocks made from glass fibre reinforced concrete moulded to imitate natural granite. “Cheung Kong funded this artificial geology – and we link that to the geology of extracting oil from bitumen in Alberta,” says Korsh. 

climateEach stop on the tour was laced with a certain irony. IM Pei’s Bank of China Tower is surrounded by graceful water features, a reminder that the is financing an Indonesian dam that threatens orangutan habitats. A row of palm trees stand in front of the Queen’s Road entrance to Norman Foster’s headquarters for HSBC, a useful cue for Korsh and Decaudin to talk about the cost of palm oil. Behind the ICBC Tower on Garden Road is an urban farm; the bank is linked to the Dakota Access pipeline project, which has eaten into farmland and has been opposed by settler farmers and Indigenous groups alike.

This gets to the heart of what Korsh and Decaudin hope to illustrate. Just as how the horrors of colonial exploitation are invisible in the glorious 19th-century architecture of Paris and London, it’s impossible to see the environmental toll of Hong Kong’s corporate juggernauts in the well-manicured landscape of Central. Decaudin points to the farm behind the ICBC tower being a perfect example. When the tour visited, its plants were wilted and forlorn. “It’s just for show,” he says. It’s greenwashing, in order words – an environmentally-friendly stunt performed for marketing purposes rather than actual impact. “These companies have environmentally-friendly financial districts, but it obscures overseas environmental damage.”

The tours seem to have left a good impression. “I found the way the tour connected the finance or market landscape of Central to environmental crises like climate change and deforestation for palm oil very compelling,” says Lachlan Barber, an assistant professor of geography at Hong Kong Baptist University. “I don’t think we have to go far in Hong Kong, or in many other cities, to see or pass through landscapes that are linked to injustices of various kinds.”

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The Bank of China Tower and HSBC Building viewed from Queensway – Photo by Christopher DeWolf

The question is how to make the connection more clear to the people who use those spaces every day. The tours reached a limited audience; how can an ordinary office worker make the link between a seemingly innocuous water feature and the environmental destruction of a dam? “I really enjoyed the walk,” says Merve Bedir, an assistant adjunct professor of landscape architecture at HKU. “I wish there was a way to repeat it on our own for others who weren’t able to be there in those two days.”  

Korsh points out that environmental activists are increasingly targeting banks in an effort to make their role in climate change more obvious to the public. Last April, more than 300 protesters glued themselves to London’s stock exchange and banks like Goldman Sachs, as part of an 11-day campaign to disrupt business in the city’s financial heart. Korsh and Decaudin hope their audio documentary will spread the word. Over the past month, they have spent hours at the CCA, plotting out their audio programme with sticky notes on a whiteboard. It will mix audio from the walking tours with interview clips from landscape architects, activists and academics. They aim to release the series this autumn.
climateCorrections: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Alberta-based activist; her name is Rita Wong, not Mina Wong. It also described Korsh and Decaudin’s audio programme as a podcast, but the CCA would like to clarify that it is an audio documentary.

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