Building houses atop our roads: How feasible is the idea?

March 08, 2018 11:13
In the "Green Deck" proposal, a gigantic green roof will be built above the roads between the two main footbridges that bestride the Cross Harbor Tunnel Toll Plaza in Hung Hom. Photo: HKPU

The Occupy Movement, which took place four years ago, has virtually unlocked our imagination about the use of roads.

It has also provided us with an opportunity to question our longstanding and conventional mindset about the right of access to public spaces.

Since then, various civic groups have put forward different proposals about opening up our roads to the public for leisure purposes.

Among them was a suggestion in 2016 by the community group Walk DVRC to designate part of the Des Voeux Road Central as a pedestrian zone. 

However, apart from pedestrianizing our roads, perhaps we should push back the frontiers of our imagination further and start studying the feasibility of constructing superstructures atop some of the major roads and intersections in the city on which we can build new homes and create extra public spaces.

Compared to land reclamation or tapping into our country parks for new land, building houses atop our roads is not only less controversial, but also cheaper and easier to accomplish than many people might have thought.

Over the years there have been calls for the government to consider tapping into the vast pool of “brownfield sites” scattered across the city, particularly in the New Territories, in its bid to find new land.

Nevertheless, there is an even better option, which is to create new land and build new homes atop our busy urban roads.

This option could prove a lot more cost-effective and beneficial to our society than spending tens of billions of dollars reclaiming land or building new towns in remote areas.

The idea of building homes atop our roads is far from being just a libertarian fantasy that only exists on paper: some local experts who have already noticed the potential of this proposal are now working aggressively to translate the idea into reality.

Lam Chiu-ying, former director of the Hong Kong Observatory, has made a written proposal to the Land Supply Task Force, in which he has clearly identified five locations that he believes have substantial potential for implementing the idea.

These locations include the MTR Pat Heung Depot, the coastal areas adjacent to the highway leading to the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Ma Liu Shui, the Yau Ma Tei intersection, the intersection lying on the southeast of the Mei Foo housing estate, as well as the intersection between Mei Foo and the Kwai Tsing container terminal.

His proposal had been put on the agenda of the task force’s meeting for discussion on Feb. 13.

According to Lam, these five locations can provide up to 50 hectares of land. The superstructure atop the MTR Pat Heung Depot alone, once completed, can house 23,000 people.

Nevertheless, the Development Bureau seems to favor the 10 hectares of land at the Yau Ma Tei intersection.

Yet the biggest challenge the government is going to face when building new homes atop the Yau Ma Tei intersection is the roadside air pollution.

The Yau Ma Tei intersection is currently witnessing some of the worst forms of roadside air pollution in the city, raising the question of whether the proposal to build houses atop it can pass the environmental assessment and gain the approval of the Environmental Protection Department.

Perhaps we should also think outside the box when considering what else we can build atop our roads apart from residential flats.

For instance, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU) has recently put forward a plan known as the “Green Deck”. It urges the government to build a gigantic green roof over the roads between the two main footbridges that bestride the Cross Harbor Tunnel Toll Plaza in Hung Hom.

Once completed, the “Green Deck” can provide 1.5 hectares of land atop the toll plaza on which various amenities such as public theaters and sport facilities can be built, thereby providing a piece of refreshingly green and open public space for everyone downtown.

According to the HKPU study, the “Green Deck” proposal can substantially reduce the airborne dust particles across the entire toll plaza area by 38.3 percent.

In my opinion, the government should even consider building green decks not only atop the Cross Harbor Tunnel Toll Plaza, but also atop other major busy roads in the city such as the Choi Hung intersection and the Kowloon entrance to the West Harbor Tunnel.

This would not only create extra land for public facilities, but can also provide our citizens with substantial green spaces at the heart of our buzzing and highly polluted urban areas.

And by moving the existing “GIC” (government, institution and community) facilities to the new green decks, the land initially earmarked for building these facilities can then be used for public housing projects.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 26

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ contributor