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Interview: Award-winning designer advocates wild plants for urban greening

Gap Chung Wai-kin is a recent graduate of Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) at The University of Hong Kong. His winning entry in Design NextGen Awards 2016 – “Unplanned Green Block for Self-Seeding Plants” – explores the idea of using wild plants to beautify Hong Kong’s urban landscape. He is interested in broadening the definition of “greening” in Hong Kong.

Gap Chung Design NextGen Award

Gap Chung. Photo: Gene Lin/HKFP.

Winning the Design NextGen Award 2016 was not a new experience for Gap Chung Wai-kin. Since 2007, this aspiring landscape architect had managed to collect no less than 13 design-related awards, while seeking ways to introduce nature into Hong Kong’s urban environment.

Why try for number 13? “I wanted to see how many people agree with my idea,” Chung said.

Chung’s award-winning entry showed that Hong Kong’s urban greening scheme relies heavily on ornamental plants which cannot withstand the city’s pollution. As a result, these plants often have short lives and need to be replaced frequently.

To address this problem, the aspiring landscape architect advocated using native wild plants to decorate Hong Kong’s streets. Chung said that wild plants were more sustainable as a greening tool than ornamental plants, because they were able to reproduce once they reached the end of their life cycle.

“If we do active planting with ornamental plants, we need to pay for the plants and also the maintenance. If we let nature green for us, we just need to maintain it, so we pay less,” said Chung.

Design NextGen Award, Gap Chung, Greening

Gap Chung at Design NextGen Award. Photo: Gene Lin/HKFP.

With three years of experience in an architectural firm under his belt, Chung is familiar with Hong Kong people’s attitude towards urban greening. While the general public see it as a positive gesture to care for the environment, few are willing to pay a higher price for truly sustainable design.

“I find that the word ‘sustainable’ is more like a brand [in Hong Kong]. People do not really want a sustainable lifestyle. People are not willing to pay more for better offices, so the developers just package their building as ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’,” he said.

Geoff Chung Design NextGen Award

Gap Chung’s award entry “Unplanned Green Block for Self-Seeding Plants”. Photo: Gene Lin/HKFP.

Despite being born and raised in the city, Chung enjoyed interactions with nature as a child. His parents often took him out hiking or to farms, enriching his world with what the great outdoors had to offer.

“What’s happening in this generation [is that] people just focus on the outcome. Like in school, they [are] really concerned about their results. They don’t really spend time in nature, so they don’t know how beautiful it is,” said Chung.

A journey to Australia in the third year of his university course further deepened his relationship with nature. He saw endless grass plains extending beyond the horizon – something that he could never see in Hong Kong. An unexpected encounter with a group of seals swimming beneath a waterfall was something that he remembers to this day. “It’s the most touching moment [for me] within that year,” said Chung.

Chung was particularly impressed by Australian wild plants during his visit.

gap chung design nextgen award

Gap Chung visiting Australia and New Zealand. Photo: Gap Chung.

In the past six months, Chung has hosted workshops that encourage Hong Kong youths to engage in urban greening using wild plants. The workshops challenge the government’s current method of urban greening, which involves frequent replacement of ornamental plants.

“When people engage in a greening process, they should understand how it works and how to maintain it… but that is not what we have now,” said Chung. “Greening can be non-sustainable sometimes,” he added.

When asked how he hoped urban greening could impact Hong Kong’s future generation, Chung said that he hoped it would make people consume less resources from nature despite the current trend going the other way. He said he had not lost hope.

“[Hong Kong] is my home, I don’t want to move,” said Chung. “I was born here, I grew up here. I think we professionals should do our best in our field and try to influence people in other fields… we need to influence people through our design.”

design nextgen award gap chung

Greening workshop. Photo: Gap Chung.

As to why he had such fondness for wild plants, Chung said, “They are little but strong, that’s why I like them. They are not pretty, but I think they are useful – that’s what I am,” he said.

HKFP is a media sponsor of the Hong Kong Design Awards.

Interview: Award-winning designer advocates wild plants for urban greening