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February 13th, 2009:

Green-lung Vision Strikes Terror In Officials’ Hearts

Stephen Vines, SCMP – Updated on Feb 13, 2009

Very occasionally someone comes up with a brilliant idea for improving Hong Kong and, almost always, it strikes terror in the hearts of the bureaucrats who run this place. The architect Rocco Yim Sen-kee has had an idea of this kind. It involves creating a magnificent green lung in the middle of Hong Kong Island, running from the Zoological and Botanical Gardens in Central to Victoria Park in Causeway Bay. This green corridor would be achieved by linking existing parks with a network of boulevards surrounded by trees and other vegetation stretching from above Central to the harbourfront and creating a zone of calm in the midst of bustle and pollution.

The ingenuity of the plan lies in the way it links what exists with what could be built with relatively little effort. But an enormous amount of determination and vision for it involves cutting (very modestly) into the fortress which Government House has become and possibly infringing on the new government palace, or headquarters as it is formally known – which, as it happens, Mr Yim has designed.

You can almost sense the nervous twitching of the bureaucrats as they contemplate an idea that involves such revolutionary thinking. Indeed, it would not be surprising if those on the front line of obstructing new ideas were already reaching for a familiar set of adjectives to put down the plan. In bureaucrat-speak, these would include assertions that the plan is far too idealistic (a very bad word in government circles), that Mr Yim is well intentioned but naive (a catch-all description of anything that requires imagination), and, of course, there is always the trump card of declaring the scheme impractical because it involves a lot of work.

By coincidence, on the day Mr Yim revealed his plan, an alliance of non-governmental organisations launched an appeal to the Town Planning Board to impose a height restriction on the latest official plan for destroying the historic Central Police Station complex which is now in the hands of that well-known conservation body, the Jockey Club.

It’s the same old story – the government is full of ideas for destroying Hong Kong’s heritage and ominously challenged when it comes to building anything new that is less than ghastly. Anyone doubting bureaucrats’ love of the ugly and absurd need only glance at the Central Library in Causeway Bay.

Meanwhile, a growing number of citizens have decided enough is enough; the destruction of Hong Kong’s heritage in the name of progress has gone too far, and they are arguing that the government should no longer try measuring progress by the amount of concrete poured but should look at ways of improving the environment on a human scale.

Mr Yim’s plan provides an ingenious way of better utilising the precious few green spaces in the middle of the city, even though it should be noted that there are probably more concrete than green areas in both the Victoria and Hong Kong parks. This plan would not create anything resembling a natural green habitat but it would cleverly carve something special out of the scarce green areas.

Why, then, is it close to certain that the bureaucrats (and their good friends in the property development
community) will oppose a scheme of this kind? It is not that the bureaucrats are necessarily full of bad intentions or that they are simply too lazy to work on a scheme that requires more effort. Such an assertion is unfair, particularly to some of those in the bureaucracy who are genuinely trying to create a better environment.

However, institutionally, the bureaucracy is inclined to avoid plans for transforming the existing infrastructure. Instead, bureaucrats love grand plans that involve knocking things down and building something grand anew. They see such schemes as their legacy projects and even dare to hope that one will eventually bear their name. If anyone deserves recognition for a great idea, it is Mr Yim but, alas, he is not a bureaucrat.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur

Air Standards To Reveal Priorities

SCMP – Updated on Feb 13, 2009

Soon, the government will replace the hopelessly outdated air pollution index (API). What it decides to replace it with will give us an insight into the government’s priorities. If the government is most concerned about the health of Hong Kong people it will adopt strict pollution guidelines.

These will allow for much less air pollution than the current standards and will drive down pollution when they are used to evaluate future developments, such as agreements with Guangzhou. The downside is that, in the short term, we will exceed these guidelines almost every day and so Hong Kong may get some bad press.

If the government is mostly concerned about public relations, it will adopt very lax guidelines. These may be only slightly stricter than the current API and will do nothing to fix the pollution problem or improve the health of Hong Kong people. By doing this, the government may successfully evade the bad press, but at a cost to our lungs.

Let us see what it does.

William Hayward, Wan Chai

Deception Claim Over Push For Cleaner Air

Timothy Chui, The Standard – Friday, February 13, 2009

Lawmakers and academics have accused the government of face-saving deception and disregarding the costs to public health through its air- quality reform. “With the prospect of HK$200 billion being spent on roads, a new highway going through Central, conversion to cleaner vehicles on a low-level voluntary basis and limited development of the subway system, the future for heart and lung health in Asia’s World City could be bleak,” Hong Kong University School of Public Health professor Anthony Hedley warned.

Accusing the administration of obscuring the true scope of health risks brought on by polluted air, he characterized relations between academics and the government as adversarial, and any progress would require an attitude change and action on their behalf.

Sitting on the Environmental Bureau’s air quality review group’s advisory panel, Chinese University professor Wong Tze-wai said the panel’s discussions were dominated by control strategies instead of addressing stricter air-quality guidelines.

He also said academics were kept in the dark over key policy plans, revealing both he and University of Science and Technology professor Alexis Lau Kai-hon – another panel member – were blind- sided by the chief executive’s October announcement that the World Health Organization’s lowest standard would be adapted for the city. With government claims that respirable suspended particulates exceed standards 5 percent of the time at roadside stations, compared to 80 percent to 90 percent if European Union standards were applied, Lau accused the city of seeking meager standards to deflect criticisms of inaction because of worsening air.

He said targets should be set to drive progress, and to properly communicate the risks of high air pollution.

“If we want the public to support difficult decisions in improving air quality, we have to explain to them how bad air affects them. We’ve heard from government repeatedly that clean air costs money, but the community is paying much, much more for filthy air,” Hedley said.

Warning that the rise of pollution since the 1980s may lead to a public health disaster, dwarfing outbreaks such as SARS, he called for the formation of an independent and intellectually honest authority akin to an environmental Independent Commission Against Corruption to handle the issue.

Lamenting the city’s health authorities’ failure to influence policy at yesterday’s Legislative Council subcommittee on improving air quality, he said reducing exposure to pollutants generated locally should be tackled without delay. According to studies, he said present strategies would not improve air quality in the foreseeable future.