Lantau Tomorrow Vision: A solution or a waste of money

The average price for a 430 square foot flat in Kowloon is HK$4.8 million — enough to buy a 17th-century French castle that is 300 times larger than the flat (SCMP).

With a population of 7.3 million people, Hong Kong is ranked as the fourth most densely populated among sovereign states and territories. And with the added pressure from rich Chinese mainland developers and limited available residential land, this makes Hong Kong notorious for its sky-high housing prices.  

As a result, a controversial plan was created by Chief Executive Carrie Lam to build several artificial islands around Lantau, creating a third housing and business center large enough to house 1.1 million people. Proponents of the plan argue that the ‘Lantau Tomorrow Vision’, as dubbed by Lam, would alleviate Hong Kong’s chronic overcrowding, develop a third business district, and is overall much more efficient in providing vacant land than other proposals on the table. However, it is simply unfeasible after considering the practicality, cost, and environmental impact.

The demand for affordable housing in Hong Kong, with currently more than 250,000 residents living in tiny subdivided flats or cage homes, is much too high to wait for Lam’s model, which is much too slow. The artificial islands will take more than a decade to be built, with housing units only opening in 2032, and people already have to wait more than five years on average for public housing. Perhaps, these islands would be beneficial twelve years from now, but it does nothing to alleviate the pre-existing housing crisis in Hong Kong.

Tai O Village, Lantau. Flickr/Christian Junker

I interviewed Yu Ka Lou, 32, who lives with her husband and two young children in a 120 sq ft subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po. She worried about the future of residents such as herself and her family.

“If residents like us who live in subdivided apartments have to wait 20 years for the government to build an island, it is not helping us at all. Maybe in 20 years, we can live in space instead,” she joked.

Yu’s family had already moved three times to different subdivided apartments within the past few years, which has “had a large impact on the kids growing up”.

“We just want a permanent place to call home,” she said. “The only good part of the plan is that there will be more guaranteed public housing.” Lam had pledged to set aside 70% of the 400,000 flats being built for public housing. Unfortunately, Yu and her family must wait years before they can finally have a home of their own.

Not only is the Lantau Tomorrow Vision too idealistic and long-term, but it also requires putting all the eggs in one basket — or, in this case, half. With a massive cost of between HK$400 billion and HK$500 billion, the proposed construction of the artificial islands would eat up half of Hong Kong’s financial reserves — money that could be put towards urban sustainability, alleviating poverty, or repurposing damaged farmlands. These numbers have sparked an outcry from protestors who criticize Lam for “pouring money into the sea”. Many other land concern groups are also worried that the cost of the Lantau Tomorrow Vision may lead to insufficient for other projects, leading to a standstill in development.

Furthermore, out of these protestors, many are environmentalists who are worried about the environmental impact the Lantau Tomorrow Vision will have on the surrounding ecosystem, as well as how climate change will affect the project.

Groups such as the World Wildlife Fund have called land reclamation a last-resort solution in Hong Kong, and ecologists and environmentalists worry about the elimination of the marine ecology in the area, which would lead to fisheries shutting down and the disruption of ocean and wind currents. Drawing attention to the Chinese white dolphin, a near threatened species, many fear that their numbers will drop drastically from noise pollution from construction.

And in the age of climate change, creating an island and settling one million residents on it is a disaster waiting to happen. Extreme weather poses a giant risk to the Lantau Tomorrow Vision, especially with the climate becoming increasingly unpredictable. In addition to this, sea levels are “expected to increase more than three feet above 2000 levels by the end of the century” (SCMP), meaning that additional millions of dollars would have to be spent on the islands’ infrastructure to ensure that they can withstand coastal flooding and other worst-case scenarios — a necessity for families like the Yu’s who are hoping to buy a flat and hand it down to future generations.

Lantau Peak View. Flickr/leo.wan

These aren’t hypothetical risks, either. Environmental groups often bring up the Osaka airport as an example, which was built on reclaimed land and shut down by Typhoon Jebi. Typhoon Mangkhut, with its effect still evident in Hong Kong today with fallen trees at the side of roads, sustained winds stronger than Jebi, and superstorms like these are expected to become more common. The Lantau Tomorrow Plan is yet to address how it plans to withstand these incoming climate abnormalities.

So instead of pouring half of all of Hong Kong’s funds into building artificial islands that not only are unable to address Hong Kong’s housing crisis, but are also at risk of having its infrastructure topple over at any time, government experts should reconsider the plan’s impact. There are plenty of other paths that could be taken.

For starters, there’s the land and unused farmlands that residents of the New Territories have claimed. Previously given to them by Britain with no expiry date, should the government push harder, this unused land could easily be developed to house thousands. Or, the government could take a chunk of the 43% of protected land in Hong Kong and develop that instead. Though this would receive backlash from environmentalists, it is simply unreasonable to put such a vast amount of land under protection when there is such a dire need for vacant land, and propose building new ones instead. There are already more than enough parks in Hong Kong, for example in Lantau. Why turn to creating more land when there is a plentiful amount right here?

But with all being said and done, Hong Kong has officially turned its hopes towards living on artificial land, a “last-resort solution” — showing just how desperate Asia’s world city, Hong Kong, has become.