The Ecofriendliest Place on Earth?

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Allow me to offer up a hot proposition to anyone who may be thinking about coming to live in Hong Kong.

(No, no, Mrs Tall – I assure you – not that kind of proposition!)

Ahem. Yes, times here are bad economically, and life in Hong Kong has its challenges. Yes, Hong Kong is a crowded and sometimes-crazy city. But here’s my offer: moving to Hong Kong gives you the chance to live what is likely the most ecologically-correct lifestyle you will find anywhere in the industrialized world.

That’s right! If you’re really concerned about the environment; if you really believe the apocalyptic pronouncements on climate change from the IPCC and Al Gore; if you really think that you are called to ‘make a difference’ in the battle against habitat destruction and the spreading human stains on Gaia’s face – here’s your chance. Come to Hong Kong!

This might strike you as counterintuitive. Okay, okay – it might strike you as certifiably insane.

But it’s not, for two extremely good reasons.

First, there’s density. If you move to Hong Kong, and find a nice little flat in a typical 40- or 50-storey block, you will be committing yourself to living at a level of density that’s proven to be environmentally more sound than living in suburbs or other low-density arrangements. As this article from the invaluable City Journal shows, high-density urban living is the most eco-friendly way of passing your stay on this mortal coil. Your ‘footprint’ is physically much smaller; your living space is likely to be compact and hence more efficient to heat and cool; and your centralized location means you burn less fuel getting around – especially if you live somewhere dense enough to support public transport (more on this in a bit).

So any good eco-warrior should embrace the urban:

. . . if you want to be good to the environment, stay away from it. Move to high-rise apartments surrounded by plenty of concrete. Americans who settle in leafy, low-density suburbs will leave a significantly deeper carbon footprint, it turns out, than Americans who live cheek by jowl in urban towers. And a second paradox follows from the first. When environmentalists resist new construction in their dense but environmentally friendly cities, they inadvertently ensure that it will take place somewhere else—somewhere with higher carbon emissions. Much local environmentalism, in short, is bad for the environment.

….

Living in the country is not the right way to care for the Earth. The best thing that we can do for the planet is build more skyscrapers.

Keep in mind, of course, that the typical Hong Kong flat is smaller than the typical American apartment, and that Hong Kong’s overall urban density is greater than anywhere in the USA. So the benefits of urban living expounded in this article are only amplified in Hong Kong.

And it gets even better.

Hong Kong’s density is also the foundation of my second big selling point. Hong Kong is so dense that it can support – I think without much dispute – the most comprehensive and efficient public transport network on the planet.

This means you don’t need a car to live here.

Ah, the car! Is there a wedge issue that more neatly separates White People from the rest of us? Is there a hotter topic in the overheated rhetoric swirling around the topics of pollution, global warming, sustainable lifestyles, and on and on? Does the leering maw of the Demon of Earthly Destruction closely resemble the grille of my first car, i.e. a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle with an absolutely maniacally wonderful 350-cubic inch V8 under the hood? We know the answers.

I’ve written about the issue of buying a car in Hong Kong, and about commuting without one. I’m actually an agnostic on the issue. But I’m also a small, petty sort of fellow, so I can’t help but feel great warm waves of schadenfreude and self-satisfaction when I browse through organs of Whiteness such as the New York Times to find extensive, anguished commentary on the question of car ownership.

See, the thing is, Hong Kong people who want to live car-free face virtually none of the disadvantages that people in many other urban areas must (very legitimately!) deal with.

Public transport in Hong Kong is excellent because:

It is frequent. In many places, if you miss your bus or train on the way in to work, you’re in the soup. That’s very rarely the case in Hong Kong. Most people have no need to plan their lives down to the minute to make sure they get ‘their’ bus or train. MTR trains at peak times run almost continuously, and even at the slowest times they have gaps of just five minutes or so. Buses typically have 5-10 minute waits.

It is cheap. Since Hong Kong’s density permits the overlap of transport networks (i.e. you frequently can choose between two or more forms of public transport to get from A to B), there’s at least a rudimentary market effect. Also, since ordinary Hong Kong people depend so heavily on public transport, the government has always been very careful about allowing price increases – this dates all the way back to the Star Ferry riots in the 1960s. So prices for all forms of public transport – including taxis – are very reasonable indeed by world standards.

It is clean. Although you may find yourself on the occasional dingy minibus or older double-decker big bus, most are in good shape. The trams are a bit hot and sweaty, but they’re cute and your ride on one is usually just a few minutes’ duration. The MTR and KCR are amazingly tidy and well-maintained, given the incredible daily crush of commuters they handle. And even the island ferries, once Hong Kong’s bastions of public transport squalor, are now comfortable and pleasant.

It is safe. There is virtually no street crime in Hong Kong, so public transport is worry-free. By contrast, in many urban areas (e.g. in my homeland, the USA) lots and lots of people claim to support public transport in the abstract, but you just try to get them on a city bus at 11:00 pm on a Saturday night.

It is (mostly) respectable. There is not too much stigma associated with taking public transport – although that is not to say there is none. No, you’re not going to likely to run into Hong Kong’s upper class on the MTR, but lots of quite upper-middle class types here will still take buses or the train, especially when commuting.

Finally, when I was reading through some of the hundreds of comments on that NYT car article, it was interesting to see how many of those arguing for keeping a car mentioned their need to have one to carry away the fruits of their weekly supermarket shopping expeditions. Yes, indeed. Well, in Hong Kong that problem is easily solved as well – almost all urban housing is within easy walking distance from at least a small supermarket. And even if you don’t feel like making lots of trips to one, you can simply hire a domestic helper to do it for you.

Let me close on a slightly more serious note. My sometimes-snide tone here notwithstanding, I do want to stress how remarkable Hong Kong is as a potential model for eco-friendly, post-industrial-age life. You may not like everything about it, but you can’t say it’s not a viable alternative.

Comments

must agree

I have to agree with you on all those points and add a bit more.  Most children get bussed to school in a very efficient manner which further prevents parents from crowding up busy roads.

The majority of people here, (notwithstanding a weird obsession with sharks fin and endngered fish species) follow a vegetable rich and animal protein poor diet which also makes a smaller footprint.

And then the recycling.  Where else in the world do you find people willing to fix everything and anything from worn out electrial appliances (western district) to umbrellas (peel str) to videos / dvds (chungking mansions).  Where do you find old ladies of 70+ dragging huge piles of newspapers and cardboard for recycling?

And the shopping - never mind using your helper, you can order online and have it delivered on the same day, or even shop yourself and have it delivered.

And because of the short distances and convenient transport our kids walk a lot more than they would otherwise.  Less wasted calories going into obesity!

Would you need to swim here?

Mr Tall, I was curious to see what the effects of some of your changes would be, and played with the calculator you'd linked to before.

Moving from a free-standing, sub-180 sq.m house to a multi-storey, sub 100 sq. m. apartment lopped 4.2 hectares off my footprint.

Switching from a daily commute (150-300km a week by car) to a typical HK journey (1-50km a week by public transport) saved another 0.8.

So switching to a hong kong lifestyle gives a potential saving of 5 hectares.

Hmm, but what about flying? The problem with moving here is the need to fly home on a regular basis. Surprisingly, the calculator gave these figures:

Hours flown each year Hectares added
3 0.5
10 0.7
25 1.2
100 4.6

So, even with a flight home to the UK each year (around 25 hours total), I come out ahead. Not what I was expecting.

Planes, trains, and CO2

Thanks for that breakdown, MrB!

Re the airplanes scenario: I suspect whoever set up that site is assuming you're flying coach, i.e. you're sharing all that CO2 output with hundreds of others.

I'd like to see a special Al Gore/Prince Charles category for those who get around by private jet . . . !

need to fly?

Do you feel the need?  The only need I feel is when I'm there to get back here!

Do I feel the need?

Ha ha.  Actually, I would be just fine not traveling once a year, and I am always anxious to come back.  However, with growing children, their grandparents definitely feel the need to see them (sorry, webcams just don't cut it), so we go once a year out of a sense of obligation/guilt for taking grandkids away from aging grandparents and great-grandparents.  And yes, it is better for us to travel, as there are age-related health-issues with all of our various parents/step-parents/in-laws.

I would agree with the author--I am personally ambivalent about a car, but I'd say we use it for about 50% of our traveling.  So shoot me, LOL.

Flying

Interesting, Gweipo and mom2twoboys -- I really do feel the need to travel. Well, not need -- 'strong want' is much more fair.

We do the obligatory trip to USA around once a year; sometimes we stretch to 18 months. But since neither Mrs Tall nor I travels much for work, we do take a lot of short trips, and yes indeed we do fly, usually, to get where we're going. 

I would find life in HK much less satisfactory without this option, I have to admit -- I get what I've termed elsewhere 'hongklaustrophobia', and it's relieved only by seeing the hills of Hong Kong shrinking below me (but knowing I'll soon be back!).

re: Flying

We've been flying back to the UK alternate summers, though that may turn into an annual visit if Mum finds it too difficult to make her current annual trip out here. I look forward to the trips. We spend some time at the house I grew up in, so it's good visiting my childhood haunts with our girls. And some time on a holiday elsewhere in the country.

Mr Tall, if some form of rationing / taxation ever makes flying a rare luxury, do you think it will affect your decision to live in HK?

I'll have to wait to read your reply, as we're getting ready to fly ourselves - off to Singapore tomoroow for a week's family holiday.

Flying

Hong Kong being a small and crowded place, most people here who can afford it (not just those like myself with family overseas) feel the need to get away to somewhere else every so often - at the least, a weekend in Macau; commonly, a few days in Thailand or Taiwan or further afield to Europe or Australia.  The carbon effect of all these trips needs to be included in any calculation of the Hong Kong lifestyle.

Need to fly

Honklaustrophobia?  ha ha.  We lived for four years on the island of Kauai in the state of HI.  Tough job, I know.  But many, many "haoles" get rock fever and have to leave the island at least once a year, even if only to go to Oahu or one of the other islands.  We were warned about it before we went, but we never experienced it.  We did have to go to Honolulu for meetings once a year, and we went back to the mainland a couple of times, but it wasn't really that big a deal.  We loved the island and the diversity of the environment (desert, rainforest, snorkeling beaches, surfing beaches, kayaking, etc).

Similarly, we don't feel the "need" to leave HK regularly.  If we need a change, we go somewhere for a hike or to a new beach or . . . .

If flying became a taxed luxury . . . . have to think long and hard.  Not sure my parents would forgive me . . . .

I can only agree that HK

I can only agree that HK public transportation is amazing! There is even no comparing the MTR (at 5HKD) to, say, the London tube (at 5 GBP!), or taxi fares for that matter. However, spending the evening Kowloon side leaves you with few options but taxi and the (occasional) red minibus, which can be quite tricky to find, to get back to HK Island. I wouldn't mind the MTR running a bit longer than 1AM too since it is so great :)

Re: Public transport after midnight

Hi there,

There are various overnight public transport routes in town, mostly running by the three bus companies.  There are Red or Green Maxicabs as well.  The fare is reasonable.

For the bus routes you might like to check these out KMB or NWFB.

Best Regards,

T

 

Public transport after midnight

A surprising number of minibuses, both red and green, run overnight - you just need to know where to find them.  We've found that asking another minibus driver is often the most convenient way to accomplish this.

After an evening out with friends in Lan Kwai Fong a few weeks ago, we just walked down to Queen's Road where a minibus to Mongkok happened to be passing.  Fromn there it was easy to get another one to Taipo, just a short taci ride from home. Apart from environmental considerations, another advantage of Hong Kong's public transport network is that it really leaves no excuse for driving after drinking.

 

Green metropolis

From the Christian Science Monitor comes this review of a new book by David Owen titled Green Metropolis. Its theme is simply that living in a big, dense city is ecologically more sound than other forms of post-industrial life:

New York has achieved its efficiencies because people live closely together – the principle of urban density so loudly touted by champions of the modern “smart growth” movement. If New York City’s 8 million residents lived in the same density as the quaint Connecticut community that Owen calls home, they’d “require a space equivalent to the land area of the six New England states plus Delaware and New Jersey,” he notes as a caution against the dangers of suburban sprawl.

New York’s low per-capita energy use and its embrace of public transit and walking are practices that “the rest of us, no matter where we live, are going to have to find ways to emulate, as the world’s various ongoing energy and environmental crises deepen and spread in the years ahead,” Owen adds.

Hmmm. Sounds good -- and familiar? -- to me! The book is of course available at Amazon.