Development, conservation can ultimately be a win-win for the San Tin Technopole - China Daily




Development, conservation can ultimately be a win-win for the San Tin Technopole

Although the San Tin Technopole, a planned information and technology (I&T) hub close to Shenzhen, has just been given a conditional green light in an environmental impact assessment, the development is still controversial.

In March, a new draft of the San Tin Technopole Outline Zoning Plan was released with a view to developing the area into a tech hub in the Northern Metropolis and create synergies with the adjacent Shenzhen I&T Park.

But environmentalists reacted strongly against it. The former director of the Hong Kong Observatory and honorary president of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, Lam Chiu-ying, commented that the latest plan involves a wetland conservation area in the district, which has a serious flood risk and therefore is not suitable for high-tech industries.

As I discussed in my recently published Chinese-language book, Smart City 5.0, debate about striking a balance between nature conservation and development is becoming fiercer and fiercer. This is a complicated issue that can escalate into a conflict if not handled carefully, especially in the face of extreme weather amid an economic downturn, and today's dispute is a typical example.

I would like to make some suggestions to help resolve the dispute. Let's start by looking at the arguments of both sides.

According to Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government information, the planned San Tin Technopole covers an area of about 1,004 hectares, bounded by the Shenzhen River and Sam Po Shue Wetland Conservation Park to the north; the Hong Kong-Shenzhen I&T Park at the Loop to the northeast; the Kwu Tung North New Development Area and Hadden Hill to the east; the Ngau Tam Mei area, San Tin Barracks and Tam Mei Barracks to the south; and the Mai Po area to the west.

Under the theme of a "new international I&T city", the San Tin Technopole is clearly the focus of the Northern Metropolis. It is expected to provide a total gross floor area of about 7 million square meters, equivalent to 17 Hong Kong Science Parks and comparable to the size of the I&T Park in Shenzhen.

Its close proximity to Shenzhen is conducive to combining Hong Kong's top-notch basic research and development (R&D) with the mainland's rich IT talent pool to enable the implementation of R&D results. This can improve the "government-industry-academia-research institute" ecosystem, which covers upstream R&D, midstream trials and applications, and downstream production, turning the city into "Hong Kong's Silicon Valley" and achieving the coveted "Stanford + Silicon Valley" model and creating quality job opportunities.

In addition, in recent years, the low-altitude economy has been regarded as a new driving force for the national economy. With its geographical advantages of being close to the boundary, San Tin can promote the development of related industries.

The low-altitude economy refers to economic activities within a vertical height of 1,000 meters from the ground, mainly involving unmanned aerial vehicles, flying taxis and logistics transportation. The estimated global market size of this travel mode could reach HK$70 trillion ($9 trillion) by 2050.

Currently, Shenzhen is a tech leader in China. In February, the world's first cross-sea and cross-city electric flying taxi took off from Shenzhen and arrived in Zhuhai in just 20 minutes. The city has also been designated as an Integrated Demonstration Zone for a low-altitude economy by the Civil Aviation Administration of China. As San Tin is a newly developed area, it can be designated more readily as a test flight area without constraints from existing developments, providing a favorable environment for local testing and promoting the feasibility of the low-altitude economy.

In the near future, using unmanned aerial vehicles to transport scientific research samples between Hong Kong and Shenzhen can be done in minutes, which is very convenient.

The Hong Kong Observatory has forecast that there will be more hot weather and slightly more typhoons this year. Last year, the record-breaking heavy rain brought by Typhoon Haikui caused flooding in MTR stations and shopping malls, which is still vivid in the minds of Hong Kong people.

In dealing with these extreme weather conditions, wetlands, including natural rivers, marshes and artificial fishponds, all play an important role. They help with water storage, flood prevention, and climate stabilization. However, the new plan designates only 13 percent of the land as a "conservation area". Lam said he feels surprised and shocked by this project, noting that this area forms part of a flood plain and is the least suitable for the construction of heavily invested industry because it is adjacent to the mouth of the Shenzhen River and the sea, and is prone to flooding. First, when there are heavy rains or floods upstream, the water will gather and pass through here. Second, during typhoons, it will face storm surges. In addition, in case of extreme weather, once flooded, the situation will be severe. At the same time, filling up fishponds will result in the loss of water storage and water percolating function, and in extreme weather, the I&T city and adjacent areas will face the risk of serious flooding, even resulting in paralyzing its operation and affecting the production chain, Lam argued.

Residents of the northern New Territories are well aware that the area is hotter in summer and colder in winter than the average Hong Kong neighborhood. Moreover, there is a risk of subsidence when built over.

The global impact of the sea-level rise and inland flooding is widespread, with an estimated 1 in 10 people being affected by disasters and more than a $1 trillion financial loss in cities by 2050. To address global issues, President Xi Jinping has pointed out that sustainable development is the "golden key". Therefore, on the one hand, China is committed to rebuilding wetlands and has become the country with the most "International Wetland Cities" in 2022. At the same time, it advocates the construction of "sponge cities" within urban areas, which have both flood control and ecological functions, to enhance the resilience and adaptability of cities in dealing with climate change and severe flooding.

In this regard, it seems that the San Tin development is going against nature and the global trend.

There is no doubt that Hong Kong needs to expand its land resources for advanced technology development and economic revitalization, and the cost of developing the northern New Territories is lower than land reclamation. However, it is too early to support or denounce this new plan. Why?

To assess the pros and cons, residents need to know the potential impact of extreme weather predictions on the local environment, residents and facilities in the next 20 to 30, or even 100, years. They need to understand how different planning scenarios will affect wildlife species and their populations. Additionally, they need to consider whether San Tin will be flooded like New York City. If so, are there overarching plans that can mitigate the threat of flooding while maintaining good ventilation in the area? What are the cost-benefit considerations? If the plan is implemented, can environmental design and building materials be used to reduce carbon emissions and enhance sustainability? Will there be measures to encourage walking and cycling?

To give the public a clear answer, the government should conduct careful research and explain these issues. It is recommended to use innovative technologies such as geographic information systems to organize and analyze complex data and engage the public and stakeholders to seek a consensus, which is the way to achieve long-term stability.

Even with sophisticated analysis and intelligent planning, we still require the support of the public and stakeholders' participation to achieve greater results. Technology undoubtedly plays a crucial role.

Whether it's the interactive map dashboard used to provide information about the pandemic or the story map that explains the history and culture of southern Lantau Island, the Hong Kong SAR government has employed innovative technology to communicate well with residents.

The authorities can continue this open and transparent approach to address the public's concerns. Ultimately, the development of the Northern Metropolis will affect the well-being of future generations. Development and conservation are not necessarily zero-sum games. We can create win-win situations through more positive interactions, which is certainly the common desire of all Hong Kong people.




Dr. Winnie Tang
Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong