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Unwanted land uses and cinerary urn spaces

Updated: 2009-09-25 08:12

Unwanted land uses and cinerary urn spaces

The problem of Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs), otherwise known as Not In My Backyard facilities (NIMBYs), is a perennial headache in Hong Kong. Hong Kong people desperately need these facilities, but nobody wants them in their neighborhood. Given that Hong Kong is now a metropolis with 7 million people, it is already hard to find unoccupied land, and even harder to find accessible unoccupied land. Not too long ago there was much animosity and public debate over the proposed relocation to Mui Wo of Christian Zheng Sheng College, which provides rehabilitation services for young drug addicts. The opposition came from residents of the surrounding neighborhood.

The acute shortage of cinerary urn spaces is another case in point. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department manages some 168,000 such spaces, but according to official sources, the number of spaces available for allocation was only 90 as of the end of July. With 10,665 applications under processing, the number of applications per urn space was 119, and the average wait could reach up to four and a half years before an application is successfully assigned a space. With the population rapidly aging and over 100,000 deaths per year now, it is expected that the problem will only get worse. Yet the government has difficulty finding new sites to house the needed urn spaces.

To deal with the problem there is only one way out: to make the undesirable land use less undesirable and better still to make it attractive for the local people. In principle, it is possible to tie additional funding for community services to an undesirable facility. But quite apart from monetary compensation, a case can be made to make the facility less undesirable and even turning it around and making it desirable. Using the issue of cinerary urn spaces as an example, the main reason why local people find a facility housing the urn spaces objectionable is that the facility is usually ugly, and it creates serious air pollution. The air pollution comes from the burning of incense and offerings. But the facility can certainly be made neat and nice looking, and be complemented with spacious gardens. The burning of incense and offerings can also be banned, and only fruits and flowers may be allowed instead. There will certainly be people who object to this idea, but traditions are not immutable. We used to have firecrackers crackling during Chinese New Year, and in the end we banned the practice with no major objections. It is time that we change our ways, especially when those ways interfere with the well being of others. We may also note that a beautiful place that is nice to visit will also be a nice place to rest in peace for our ancestors.

To make more people happy it is possible some flexibility be allowed. I would recommend that the facilities located in urban areas not allow the burning of incense and paper offerings. But facilities located in designated sites that are far away from people's homes may. Then we can allow people to trade their places, so that those who insist on maintaining their traditional ways may have the cinerary urn spaces for their ancestors in the designated sites, perhaps paying a surcharge to cover the extra administrative and cleaning cost, and to balance demand and supply in case there are too many people in this category. For each of the 18 districts, the District Board will decide where the facilities will be housed in each district. Ashes of the dead will be accommodated in a local facility. This arrangement is fair, and it will reduce traffic.

It is high time that we make our cemeteries more peaceful and more beautiful. In many countries cemeteries are a good place to visit and to contemplate. If our city is to be a modern city, our thinking and our ways have to change with the times.

The author is the director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies of Lingnan University

(HK Edition 09/25/2009 page1)