How to add one million niches?

July 08, 2020 08:48
Wo Hop Shek Kiu Tau Road Columbarium Phase V. Photo: HK government

In a place where land is scarce like Hong Kong, the housing problem not only exists for people alive, but also for those after death. Everyone is resistant to the setting up of funeral area near their homes, afraid of the bad “feng shui” and their property price being adversely affected. These make it difficult to set up columbarium niches.

The 1st runner-up of this year's Esri Young Scholars Award, Lam Tsun Yeung Justin from the Department of Urban Planning and Design of the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong, used spatial data analysis to find new locations for columbaria that meet the requirements of all parties and offer space-saving ideas.

At present, the government and non-profit-making Chinese Permanent Cemetery provide niches for lease on the basis of a 20-year interment period at HK$2,400, but they are extremely scarce, there are long queues and people have to wait for 50 months. Private columbarium is another option, but the price of owning a niche is about HK$260,000. Apart from the two options, some people will place the ashes of their beloved relatives in the Mainland, funeral homes, or illegal niches. In 2018, the number of unplaced ashes of the dead was huge, reaching 43,000, which troubled many families.

The authority plans to build 490,000 niches in the future, mainly in Tsang Tsui, Tuen Mun and Sandy Ridge, Fanling. Shek Mun and Chai Wan are more easily accessible, but it is anticipated that the residents in the vicinity will object to the idea.

Hong Kong's population is aging, the government expects that green funerals such as memorial gardens will increase from 16% now to 26% ten years later, but there is still a need to add more than 74,000 niches.

Where does the space come from?

According to a 2010 survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, nearly 70% of the respondents believe that niches should be evenly distributed in 18 districts throughout Hong Kong. Among them, residents in the New Territories are more tolerant (57%) of the niches located in the area where they live, while at the Kowloon side, it is only 32%. In fact, Kwun Tong and Yau Tsim Mong district are so densely populated that it is really difficult to accommodate these "new residents."

Therefore, excluding these districts, Justin found suitable places in 13 districts based on six principles:

1. Location with relatively small population and not visible to residents (based on the height of the seventh floor);
2. The land slopes at less than 25 degrees, reducing the cost of leveling works;
3. In line with the Outline Zoning Plan, restricted areas such as country parks and military land are avoided;
4. It is best to be not more than 500 meters from the main road to facilitate the Ching Ming worship;
5. Staying clear of existing approved funeral area to avoid disputes with the inhabitants;
6. Use government lands as much as possible to avoid cost increment.

After analyzing with GIS software ArcGIS, he successfully found 19 government lands with a total area of 43 hectares. These include:
• Ta Kwu Ling (11 hectares): 2 to 5 minutes’ driving from Lung Shan Tunnel of Tai Po;
• Tuen Mun (14 hectares): 10 minutes’ driving from Tuen Mun railway station;
• Tai O (4 hectares): 7 minutes walk from Tai O bus terminal.

In addition, rock caves are also considered. The Civil Engineering and Development Department has identified five cavern sites with a total of 402 hectares. However, due to the high cost of surveying and construction, they are reserved as a second choice.

In fact, Tokyo and New York are also facing the columbaria niche shortage problem as well. These cities use technology to make up for their insufficiency. For example, compressing the storage space of the niches to double up the capacity, the ash box will be transported out by conveyor belt during worship. The worship places are individually separated and decorated according to different religions.

In this way, the capacity of the proposed 19 columbaria can be doubled to more than one million niches, which is enough for use till 2043. If the option of using existing caves is counted, Hong Kong people will no longer need to worry about their post-death residence.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong