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Tuesday, April 13, 2021, 01:06
HK's smart land use and planning must be forward-looking
By Ho Lok-sang
Tuesday, April 13, 2021, 01:06 By Ho Lok-sang

Hong Kong has been talking about smart city for a long time. Smart city has many aspects: smart traffic management, smart management of the environment, smart management of our amenities and social services, etc. In each case the intelligent use of information and communications technology plays a central role. However, given that land is a particularly scarce resource, smart city must treat smart land use as a top priority. 

Presently, a public debate is underway on the desirability of the development of a columbarium, crematorium and related facilities at Sandy Ridge Cemetery. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress (DAB) opposed the project, saying that the location is adjacent to the border with Shenzhen and should be used more productively in collaboration with China’s most innovative city. A report led by an expert from the State Council last year awarded Shenzhen top spot in the entrepreneurship and innovation index for the third straight year. Since innovation and entrepreneurship are key drivers for economic progress today, collaborating with Shenzhen will produce significant benefits for Hong Kong. The DAB’s objection sounds right. The question is whether the land indeed can be put to alternative use as suggested. 

I looked at the project plan and discovered that the proposed project is within the bounds of the Sandy Ridge Cemetery and occupies an area of 1.8 hectares. The project was approved back in 2012 and was to encompass a new complex provided with funeral parlors, a crematorium and a columbarium. It involves the widening of a section of the existing Sha Ling Road of about 800 meters long to a 7.3-m-wide carriageway with footpaths, construction of a pick-up and drop-off point near the junction of Sha Ling Road and Man Kam To Road, as well as other infrastructural works, including roadworks, waterworks, drainage and sewerage works, geotechnical works, landscaping works and environmental mitigation measures, and other ancillary works. It will provide more than 200,000 spaces for holding human ashes and the capacity for cremating 17,800 bodies a year. These facilities will greatly alleviate the current acute shortage. 

The land adjacent to our border with Shenzhen is highly valuable, offering huge agglomeration economies or benefits arising from proximity to one of the world’s most innovative powerhouses of technological development and applications

Mrs Carrie Lam warns that even if the plan is aborted, the project land will not have an alternative use, and thus will be wasted. The Hon. Mr. Chan Hak-kan, vice-chairman of the DAB, challenged her views, saying: “Sandy Ridge is a major land-planning blunder because it’s so near to the Shenzhen border. It’s potentially the future center of the Greater Bay Area, and it should be used for other industries such as logistics.” 

Unfortunately, in order to do what Mr Chan proposed doing, the entire Sandy Ridge Cemetery will have to be relocated. Relocating the proposed project elsewhere, even if an alternative location can be found, will not work. The entire Sandy Ridge Cemetery is roughly 63 hectares. This stretch of land was designated for use as a cemetery back in 1950. At that time no one could have foreseen the development of Shenzhen. But after it has been used as a cemetery for some 70 years, relocating the cemetery in the context of Hong Kong is just unthinkable. It appears that the Hon. Chan’s wish for putting the land to more productive use is wide of the mark. 

Given that the cemetery cannot be relocated, the choice of the proposed complex within the bounds of the cemetery is both natural and logical. Although if we were to start from scratch, we would most probably not use the 63 hectares of land as a cemetery; we cannot go back to 1950. What we can do now is to ensure that the Sandy Ridge Cemetery and the new cremation and ancillary facilities are well managed, so that both aesthetically and logistically the completion of the project should not produce excessive external diseconomies in the surrounding areas. 

The moral of the Sandy Ridge project is that smart land use planning must be forward looking, and that what the future holds is often beyond planners’ imagination. Thus there is a case to retain some flexibility for land use if possible. 

Still, the Hon. Chan’s viewpoint is not entirely without merit. The land adjacent to our border with Shenzhen is highly valuable, offering huge agglomeration economies or benefits arising from proximity to one of the world’s most innovative powerhouses of technological development and applications, particularly against the backdrop of the Greater Bay Area Plan. Thus, the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park in the Lok Ma Chau Loop is strategically located. Because the land is highly valuable, it is vital that applications to locate in the park be vetted according to rigorous standards and procedures. There were stories about firms having been admitted to the Science Park that should not qualify. This must be avoided. 

Given the need to retain some flexibility for land use if possible, I would applaud the Transitional Housing Projects as very smart. Transitional Housing Projects allow temporary homes to be built in a matter of months to meet immediate needs on land that is vacant now but may have better alternative uses down the road.

The author is a senior research fellow at Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Eco-nomic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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