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Towards A Sustainable Northern Metropolis
|The Northern Metropolis will stretch across the New Territories’ mostly rural landscape, which includes wetlands in the Deep Bay.|
Hong Kong is among the most densely populated places in the world. Coupled with its hilly terrain, land supply has always presented a series of challenges. In late 2021, the Hong Kong government released a report entitled “Hong Kong 2030+: Towards a Planning Vision and Strategy Transcending 2030” (Hong Kong 2030+), which set out a territorial spatial development strategy for the city for the next 30 years.
The city’s Director of Planning, Mr Ivan Chung, identified the Northern Metropolis as one solution to tackle Hong Kong’s land shortage problem. The Northern Metropolis Development Strategy covers an area of 300 km2 across the northern part of the New Territories, from Yuen Long Pak Nai in the west to Starling Inlet in the east, encompassing about half of Hong Kong’s land area that lies outside its approximately 450 km2 of statutory protected areas.
Much of the Northern Metropolis is currently rural landscape with many sites of high heritage value, including country and marine parks, high-quality farmland, traditional villages, the internationally-important Deep Bay wetlands, and endangered animals and habitats along the Tsim Bei Tsui-Pak Nai coastlines.
Although the government has announced the Northern Metropolis will be developed under an “Urban-Rural Integration and Co-existence of Development and Conservation” planning principle, it is foreseeable that this massive development plan will drastically transform the landscape of this large swathe of rural land.
The Chief Executive's 2021 Policy Address announced that the government will conserve about 2,000 hectares of Deep Bay wetlands by establishing various types of wetland protection areas within or adjacent to the Mai Po Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site. But as the Northern Metropolis begins to take shape, it is expected that multiple large-scale government and private development projects will be launched in the vicinity of the Deep Bay wetlands.
WWF-Hong Kong has been managing the Mai Po Nature Reserve for four decades and we welcome the government's proactive conservation efforts to protect the wetlands around Mai Po. However, we are also concerned about the potential impacts of the Northern Metropolis on the overall ecological functions of Deep Bay. Before launching large-scale infrastructure projects, the government should prudently assess the ecological impacts of all aspects of the projects, take proactive measures to protect sites with high ecological value throughout the planning process and properly manage newly-established protected wetlands to ensure that the Deep Bay wetlands will continue to thrive.
The Northern Metropolis – Where Conservation Meets Urbanisation
Due to their high ecological value, about 3,000 hectares of fishponds surrounding Mai Po Nature Reserve have been designated as a statutory Wetland Conservation Area (WCA) since the 1990s and surrounded by a Wetland Buffer Area. In the Northern Metropolis Development Strategy, the government has committed to incorporating most of the fishponds in the WCA into three separate wetland conservation parks.
While the wetland landscape is legally protected, the Northern Metropolis development nevertheless aims to significantly increase the current residential population and boost economic development. In order to maintain the ecological integrity of the Deep Bay wetland ecosystem, it is vital to engage and communicate with professionals from various fields, and adopt more bold and innovative land-use planning and architectural designs to balance economic and conservation needs.
As Hong Kong grows and develops, there will inevitably be a greater demand for housing and services. WWF-Hong Kong believes that an integrated framework with conservation embedded at the core of any development, supported by holistic spatial planning framework and comprehensive strategic environmental assessment, can alleviate development pressure on Deep Bay area.
The new development areas (NDAs) earmarked for the Northern Metropolis are located between mountain ranges and the Deep Bay. Infrastructure work will undoubtedly impact the hydrology of the waterways flowing into Deep Bay, and the vast amounts of hardened concrete to be laid will cause flash flood and water pollution issues during rainstorms, affecting vital water resources of the wetlands around Mai Po.
Climate change is making such extreme weather events more frequent. These NDAs should be built using sponge city design and adopt “Ridge to Reef” conservation planning concepts, with natural rivers and streams allowed to run through the areas as key “green infrastructure” components. This will allow hydrological and habitat connectivity between the mountains and coasts, while also preserving surface permeability by avoiding hardened concrete infrastructure so as to minimise surface run-off. This “wetland city” concept will integrate a system of green infrastructures for:
- Flood mitigation and retention;
- Carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change;
- Storm surge and flood barriers, rainwater storage to prevent water shortages;
- Natural water and air purification systems;
- Natural cooling systems to mitigate heatwaves and the urban heat island effect; and
- Other ecosystem services that contribute to the human and environmental well-being and that are linked to the ecological integrity of the wetland landscape around Deep Bay.
Making the Northern Metropolis a world-class wetland city
In 2015, the Convention on Wetlands introduced the Wetland City Accreditation Scheme for cities that attach importance to wetland conservation. So far, 43 cities around the world have been accredited, with China having the highest number. As a core city in the “Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area” national development strategy, Hong Kong is well-positioned to develop the Northern Metropolis into a world-class wetland city. The green infrastructure of the wetlands will complement the “grey infrastructure” of the city and potentially inspire other cities in the Greater Bay Area to adopt more proactive wetland conservation measures.
Hong Kong’s countryside has always been a major tourism asset, attracting local and international visitors. The globally-important Deep Bay wetlands and the rural countryside within the Northern Metropolis are the natural heritage of two bustling metropolises, Hong Kong and Shenzhen, and play a pivotal role in environmental protection, climate resilience, recreation, and the sustainable development of the Greater Bay Area.
The Northern Metropolis is a huge development that will require unprecedented participation from all sectors; the pros and cons of development and conservation must be discussed and debated from different perspectives, and innovative conservation measures must be proactively implemented to ensure Hong Kong’s precious natural resources are protected and that the Northern Metropolis will be a pleasant, welcoming, safe place for people and nature.