Saving Agricultural Lands

The story of “the Garden City lands”, a 55.2-hectare land parcel bounded by Garden City Road to the west, Alderbridge Way to the north, No. 4 Road to the east and Westminster Highway to the south, goes back many years.

The lands used to be owned 50/50 by the native Musqueam First Nation and the Federal Government (represented by Canada Lands Company “CLC”), and after lengthy negotiations, agreement was reached in 2005 between the City of Richmond and the two landowners for each of the Musqueam First Nation and the City/CLC to develop half the land, provided the parcel could be taken out from a land reserve called the “Agricultural Land Reserve (“ALR”)”. However, two attempts (one in 2006 and one in 2008) by the three partners to apply to the Agricultural Land Commission (“ALC”) to remove the lands from the ALR proved to be futile, thanks to strong resistance put up by the “Garden City Lands Coalition”, which is a group of environmental-conscious professionals and citizens formed to alert the public of the paramount need to preserve the lands as open space and green, in other words, to save the lands in question from turning into a concrete jungle.

The ALC is a provincial statutory body primarily charged with the duty to preserve agricultural land and to encourage local governments to enable and accommodate farm use of agricultural land and uses compatible with agriculture in their plans, bylaws and policies.

The latest development of the story is that the City of Richmond has bought the entire agricultural parcel from the current landowners (Musqueam First Nation and CLC) for a sum of C$59.17 million, which money comes from the land acquisition fund set up with sale proceeds from the sale of waterfront lands left over from the development of the Olympic Oval Stadium. ASPAC Development, a Vancouver company owned by the Kwok family of the Sun Hung Kai Properties Group in Hong Kong, is the developer that bought those waterfront lands and is in the process of developing them.

Although it is not clear yet what kind of uses the Garden City Lands will be put to, the community has made it clear, through supporting the Coalition, that they definitely do not wish to see more high-rises on farmland, and the ALC has affirmed that the parcel, which is now locked in the ALR, is capable of and suitable for urban agriculture.

With warning signs everywhere that food shortage is becoming a real global problem, Richmondites have the good sense to come together to make their voices heard in opposing profit-oriented, short-sighted development for development’s sake, and in advocating for visionary, sustainable urban agriculture for food security.

It is a well-known fact that some Hong Kong developers are holders of vast amounts of agricultural land in the New Territories. But agricultural use in terms of Hong Kong planning is almost a misnomer, as such use is nearly non-existent. Everybody knows why developers have been hoarding agricultural lands: they wait for the day when it is opportune to change the use from agricultural to residential or commercial, at which time they will haggle with government to achieve the lowest possible premiums for the change of use to maximize their profits. But Hong Kongers, except for a group of passionate post-80s and environmentalists, seem so docile and indifferent, compared with Richmondites, in that they are content to let developers heap concrete everywhere they can lay their hands on.

Perhaps the first lesson that can be learned from the Richmond experience is that citizens who care for the interests of their community standing in solidarity and acting for the common good (especially for the good of future generations) can be effective. The second one is that it is desirable to have a statutory body charged with preserving an ever diminishing source of agricultural land and, by extension, raising public awareness to the benefits of community farming for the sake of food security.

With Hong Kongers suffering stinging food price inflation that has resulted from the yuan appreciation, not to mention housing price, transportation fees and other utilities charges inflation, maybe it is high time for the SAR government and Hong Kongers to contemplate the notion of agricultural land conservation. One most efficient way to going about this is to freeze agricultural use in existing zonings, i.e. no rezoning is to be allowed on lands zoned agricultural. If this is coupled with a policy that promotes community-supported agriculture, a concept that has become popular in the United States since 1984, growing food for local consumption might well be a viable alternative to importing from the mainland. It is one way of ensuring food safety and may also create self-employment opportunities. It may also be an effective way to curb the large developers’ earning power, as development of agricultural lands gives them fat (and unjust) profit margins (see Pg. 54 – 55, Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong).

Many individual private property owners who are benefiting (if temporarily) from the surging property market would rather keep silent than rock the boat. If only they care to give the issue more thoughts, they would probably come to realize the dire consequences of unsustainable development (like serious lack of open space, traffic gridlock, choking air pollution, to name just a few) and that it is their next generation(s) who will have to suffer these consequences. Any short-term gain they may get from their property price appreciation (paper gain only in most cases) will probably be outstripped by their children’s subjugation to the greedy property cartel (by shouldering heavy mortgages on sky-high priced homes) and their eternal loss of a livable environment (in terms of the many flawed, myopic and developer-centric development and planning policies).

Richmondites have acted for the long-term benefit of future generations. Is it not time that Hong Kongers should also act together to change something they know is noxious and unjust and will hurt their next generation?