Cities, like households, find themselves running out of room as the family grows, but the four walls continue to confine. In inland areas, it’s just a matter of spreading out into surrounding land, perhaps expanding the city limits. However, for cities fronting the coast, and even more so for cities on islands, the options are fewer. Building up as opposed to out is the first strategy, but when even the high-rises become dense, something’s got to give. For many places, that means making more land. Singapore and Macau have been the biggest producers of such manufactured seaward extensions. Singapore has added an area equivalent to 24 percent of its original size, and Macau is more than 160 percent bigger than it once was.
Hong Kong is another such place, though its 45 square miles of new land is more modest. Approaching 7.5 million people, it’s crowded. The seafront and island territory has 427 square miles, but the buildable portion is only around 17 of those— nearly three-quarters of its land is protected from or too steep for development, or is in agriculture. In order to create more living space for its residents, and to make room for more infrastructure, Hong Kong has always wanted to be bigger. Dumping fill material to extend land area has been the solution for a long time. In fact, projects to increase the size of Hong Kong have been going on since around 1860, when the British colonial government broadened the coastline to accommodate the growing demand for more development in the area. Efforts to create more surface for building continued from there, the largest of which was the building of the Chek Lap Kok airport in the 1990s. That project alone increased Hong Kong’s land area by an entire percentage point.
Other, more modest land reclamation projects have been undertaken to increase buildable area for business and housing. Reclaimed land is now the home to 27 percent of Hong Kong’s population, and 70 percent of its business sector. Still, housing is in critically short supply in Hong Kong. Rents are so high that people are packed into ridiculously tiny habitations. Even those with decent employment and a cash flow may be squeezed into a flat of 100 square feet. For the less well off, “living“ space may be a leaky unit with hazardous wiring, so small it doesn’t even allow for a person to fully extend their legs while trying to sleep. The wealth disparity between citizens in Hong Kong is second only to New York City, and a good 20 percent of Hong Kong’s population lives below the poverty level. Many people find it impossible to afford a decent apartment, and the territorial government is under pressure to make things better. The go-to solution is more land reclamation. There are plans being proposed for 4,200 acres of new artificial islands between Hong Kong and Lantau islands. At a cost of $600 to $800 billion, a business district and 260,000 living spaces would be created. Seventy percent of the new housing would be dedicated to affordable public housing. It’s a grand plan, but the cost is exorbitant. Coupled with that, the wisdom of the process is getting more scrutiny.
In order to create these new expanses, a lot of engineering has to go on. Huge dredges suck mud up off an area of the ocean floor and fill the void with more stable sand and rock until it breaks the surface. This can take years, and results in a number of environmental ill effects. Mud from the bottom of shallow bays and nearshore areas may be fouled with contaminated sediment washed out of urban areas. Stirring it all up fills the waters with harmful chemicals and heavy metals, with negative impacts to sea life. The pink dolphins local to Hong Kong, for instance, are nearly all gone, partly due to water pollution from ever increasing land reclamation. A further insult to the environment is the importation of sand, which has had to be robbed from distant sources, such as wetlands and beaches that rely on it for protection from storm-driven waves. Those same storms, exacerbated by climate change and sea level rise, will also threaten whatever new, low-lying artificial islands are built around Hong Kong.
Those opposed to the expense and environmental damage wrought by massive land-creation projects counter that there are empty, buildable lands onshore. These former farmlands or industrial areas that have been tainted by pollution are known as brownfields. Low-level industries like container storage and e-waste recycling operations occupy such sites. The government claims the parcels are owned by criminal elements who demand high prices and compensation for having to close businesses or move them elsewhere. It is bureaucratically easier to infill a portion of seafloor where no one has a claim of ownership. The business of reclaiming land is big business, involving staggering sums of money, governmental authority, industrial wealth and influence, and the threat of unsavory deal-making. The environment generally gets a back seat in the face of these power brokers. Hong Kong and other densely packed coastal cities may see no way forward but to keep pushing out to sea, but nature is counting the true cost, and will only absorb so much.
Even if you’ve been to Hong Kong before, there’s probably more of it now! Go have a look around, and let MapEasy’s Guidemap to Hong Kong help you find your way. Available from Maps.com.
caption: Hong Kong in relation to the rest of China.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Joowwww (Public domain)
caption: This geologic map of Hong Kong Territory shows reclaimed areas in gray. The big gray mass above Lantau Island is Chek Lap Kok Airport, mostly built on fill.
source: Wikimedia Commons: HarrietHKUGeology (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: Hong Kong is packed, but it wants to make room for more.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Estial (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: Reclamation in Hong Kong is not new. This photo shows efforts to expand the city in 1953.
source: Wikimedia Commons: 不詳 (Public domain)
caption: And the expansion continues.
source: Flickr: Martin Ng (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)
caption: Chek Lap Kok Airport is mostly built on fill, with further expansions ongoing despite weather and sand-supply delays.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Wylkie Chan (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)
caption: The rare pink dolphin are disappearing, thanks in part to the pollution and pressure of massive coastal development.
source: Flickr: Judy Gallagher (CC by 2.0 Generic)