Global Observer

The trees that define Hong Kong's cityscape

The trees that define Hong Kong's cityscape

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HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's subway company changed its construction plans to preserve "wall" trees. What makes them so special?

Part of the stone walls in Kennedy Town

HONG KONG — In 2005, the MTR Corporation, which operates Hong Kong’s subway system, announced the proposal of a new train station in an area called Kennedy Town. The construction would result in the demolition of a few old walls made of stone.

Local residents and politicians decried the plan, calling for the preservation of the thick walls that date back 140 years, along with the trees that grow on them. So before construction began in 2010, the company had conceded to move the subway exit to another location so as not to interfere with the so-called stone-wall trees.

MTR opted to instead build on the site of an existing public swimming pool. This meant the company had to first build a new pool elsewhere, at a cost of $77 million.

Jim Chi-yung of the University of Hong Kong told the South China Morning Post that the walls and their trees are “world-class urban living heritage.” A combination of colonial history and tropical climate helped create Hong Kong’s unique stone-wall trees. In the early 20th century, British city planners constructed the large walls as they carved flat land into sloping hills. Chinese banyan trees started to sprout in the walls’ crevices, eventually growing into mature trees that tend to loom over one side. Their roots weave across the stone facades, the trunks and branches extending off the top of the structures.

Residents see the wall trees as valuable both for their historical significance — such stone walls were a distinctly British design — and the unusual result of banyan and fig trees growing in such a striking, sprawling way. Newer walls are reinforced with concrete, and such growth cannot occur.

Preserving heritage and nature in Hong Kong’s urban jungle is not new — even fruit bats might escape habitat destruction after conservationist lobbying. But in a city where development seems to be given priority over all else, every conservation battle has to be hard fought.

Jim devised the tree-protection plan for MTR, which requires a wide buffer zone surrounding the walls where no construction is allowed to take place. A barrier also prevents wastewater from coming into contact with the trees.

There are about 1,000 such trees left. Here's another look:

Photos: Wikimedia Commons/Forz; Wikimedia Commons/Shizhao

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure