A Case Study of Hong Kong

By Finn Beckett-Hester, GLOBUS Correspondent

As I walked around Sham Shui Po, one of the poorest regions of Hong Kong, I dove into the air-conditioned havens of shops and office buildings to escape the unbearable June heat every 10 minutes. This is the lived reality for many Hong Kong-ers and visitors alike, who often struggle to find respite in the natural coolness of a city park or green space. In Hong Kong, space, especially green space, defined as“a type of land use which has notable contributions to urban environments in terms of ecology, aesthetics or public health, but which basically serves human needs and uses” (Aydin & Cukur, 2012:88),is at a premium; access to this green space is greatly unequal, becoming a luxury for the wealthy and a symbol of class disparity in one of the world’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan metropolises.

Green space is invaluable in every urban setting, providing both environmental and social benefits. In environmental science urban areas are found to create their own microclimates known as ‘Urban Heat Islands’ (UHI), whereby urban areas are around 3-4 °C warmer than surrounding rural areas. In the context of climate change and rising temperatures urban dwellings are set to get hotter. Furthermore, with population growth through migration, an ageing population and sustained birth rate at or above replacement level, there are greater demands on greenfield land for development; more concrete, roads, pavements and buildings would contribute to producing a greater UHI effect. This temperature increase occurs because urban structures have a low albedo: this means that the surface reflects only a small amount of incoming radiation and absorbs the rest, meaning that more heat is trapped, and surrounding temperatures increase. The effect of this is exacerbated in Hong Kong which is currently experiencing unprecedented levels of air pollution (Chiu, 2018), including photochemical smog and tropospheric ozone, which acts as an insulator to heat. This poses a great threat to the health of flora, fauna, and individuals’ health and well-being, through phenomena such as acidic rain. Studies have shown that green space greatly reduces the UHI effect (ACS, 2012); this is achieved through floral and green vegetation which absorbs pollutants through photosynthesis, producing oxygen. Secondly, vegetation has a higher albedo, which means that more of the sun’s insolation is reflected into the atmosphere, and consequently that less infrared heat is refracted back to the Earth’s surface. Vegetation also means higher levels of evapotranspiration, accelerating heat loss. Finally, trees provide shade keeping the surrounding area cool.

Evidence for the social benefits of green space is plentiful, with higher levels of green space being correlated with greater levels of mental well-being (Sugiyama, et al., 2008 & Van den Berg, A. et al., 2010). In Hong Kong, half of residents live in spaces less than 500sqft, with the poorest members of society forced to reside in bed-space apartments, a reality for over 200,000 people (Wu, 2017): thus, green space is needed to compensate for an increasing lack of space, to address psychological health issues such as anxiety, insomnia and stress, in line with Ulrich’s (1991) seminal stress reduction theory which states that nature offers respite through aesthetics and distance from everyday life.

With economic inequality and class divisions in Hong Kong at the highest levels for 45 years, with a GINI coefficient of 0.539, compared to the notably unequal USA at 0.411 (Oxfam Hong Kong, 2018: 11), it is likely that access to green space will continue to decrease for the regions’ poorest. The poorest residents have the least access to green space, especially in poverty clusters such as Sham Shui Po (20sqft), Kwun Tong (13sqft) and Wong Tai Sin (18sqft) per adult compared to 36sqft on average and 86 sqft for the richest residents (Ho et al., 2017: 8-10). Furthermore, a survey shows that some 56% of Hong Kong residents were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the provision of ‘good quality parks and green spaces’ (Degolyer, 2016). This is not to say that green spaces don’t exist: in fact, Hong Kong is surrounded by nature parks (see image 1), making up some 75% of Hong Kong’s total land. Furthermore, green space, although sparse is even in urban areas and some of them are rather beautiful (see image 2). The issues here is that in the busy lives of workers, with the average Hong Konger working some of the longest hours globally at 51 hours on average per week (Duarte, 2018), many struggle to find time to visit the nature parks, which are also largely inaccessible, taking a long time to reach. This means for the majority of residents that they are restricted to urban areas. Furthermore, the beautiful parks and green space that does exist in urban areas are often ‘pay-to-enter’ or have restricted opening hours, such as the Nan Lian Garden (see Image 2). This makes the provision of accessible public green space crucial to erode class disparities.

Image 1: View from Victoria Peak (author’s own, 2018)

To further evidence this class disparity, I point to the most vulnerable group, elderly people, of which 1/3 live in poverty. This number will only increase in the context of an ageing population, with the percentage of those aged 65 and over predicted to increase from 15% in 2014 to 28% by 2034. With a population that is getting older the prevalence of geriatric diseases also increases. An estimated 85,000 people aged 60 and over had dementia in 2009, which is projected to increase to over 270,000 by 2039 (CSD, 2015). A study by Mapes (2010) showed that time in green spaces had a positive effect on the condition of dementia patients. Allowing them to immerse themselves in Chinese cultural practices such as Tai Chi and Qigong, which are a common sight in the limited open spaces across Hong Kong, has been critical historically for building social capital. A more shocking statistic shows that suicide rate is highest for those aged 65 and over, increasing from 263 deaths in 2015 to 283 in 2016 (HKJC, 2017). Privatisation of space has played a huge role in the degradation of the lives of the elderly and their mental states. Historically the elderly would be situated in housing that would have communal kitchens and bathrooms; this was a staple part of the Hong Kong lifestyle and promoted a sense of cooperation and community with people having daily meals together. However, neoliberal discourses and ideas of individuality started to pervade into the housing sector in Hong Kong: housing became smaller, and self-contained. No longer are the days of the communal kitchen and bathroom, instead everyone has their own utilities; corridors, previously full of neighbours and social interaction, have become quiet. All that is visible are individual doors with metal security railings in front of them. There is no sense of community, despite high-density living.

These rising class disparities are inextricably linked to governance, or lack thereof. As I walked around Hong Kong, the public spaces that I encountered were mostly paved, boring and offered little functionality in the way of exercise or socialisation. Indeed, this is congruent with the bureaucratic public space building rubric of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), who are forced by tight budgets to have minimal, easy to maintain landscapes that offer little biodiversity. Therefore, despite the government stating there must be access to a park within 100m for everyone, only 30% of these so-called ‘pocket parks’ need to be green (Image 3). Consequently, critical function that green space can play in reducing the UHI and providing a place for socialisation is under-utilised. Further to this, the government regulates the type of trees so that fewer leafy trees are planted, meaning fewer leaves to clean up: plants and trees are viewed purely as aesthetic.

Image 2: Land of No Cheese (2012)

Furthermore, the Hong Kong Green Building Council (HKGBC), set up in 2009 to “promote the standards and developments of sustainable buildings” (HKGBC, n.d.), has failed to provide incentives to encourage sustainable development. This is because measures taken to improve greenery continue to lie in economic or ecological logics (though significantly less the latter), not social well-being. The organisation promotes ‘Bonus GFA’ (gross floor area), whereby if a construction contract provides ‘greenery’, they are permitted to build taller. However, the issue with this is that often this greenery will be built on roofs or other areas that are publicly inaccessible. An example of this is the 28 floor Skypark in Mong Kok designed by Rob Wagemans’ Concrete, an Amsterdam-based architectural firm, who attempted to provide ecologically-friendly, yet beautiful living space for the people of Hong Kong. This building includes an indoor swimming pool, poolside bar, gym, library and rooftop garden. However, this is an extremely socially exclusive project, with prices of apartments ranging from around HKD $8.5 million (around £825,000) for a 400sqft apartment to HKD $26 million (around £2.5 million) for a 960sqft apartment. These prices obviously make the apartments out of the reach of most of the population, let alone the poorest members who would benefit the most from extra green space, especially in a poor region such as Mong Kok where the Skypark is situated. This evidences the lack of government will to address economic inequality, and a commitment to unaccountable and unsustainable capitalism.

Image 3: Concrete Amsterdam (n.d.)

Stats on the current state of public space in Hong Kong show the classist nature of access to green space and public space in general. An investigation by Too (2008) shows that 65% had CCTV cameras (fostering a culture of surveillance): this has been linked to an increase in anxiety, meaning that people are significantly less likely to use the space and thus derive the benefits that it offers (Minton, 2012). There is reduced accessibility through the fact that 74% of sites didn’t display notices saying it was an open space, while only 60% of sites are open for 24 hours a day. People aren’t encouraged to stay: only 35% of sites have seating.

To expand public green space and make access to it more equitable, government intervention is needed. Whilst this largely goes against Hong Kong’s laissez-faire governance principles, the social effects have been devastating and can no longer be ignored. Private land is class-exclusive and is often in the most congested areas which makes it even more important. Government must take the radical step of removing this land from private industry, potentially with compensation if reasonable and not to the detriment of other public services, so that it can be used as a public good.

The land currently in government ownership must also be transformed. This needs to be done by breaking the bureaucratic inertia that has characterised the management of public spaces in Hong Kong. Leadership needs to be willing to take risks in instituting sustainable development instead of following the status quo. This involves having more creativity in designing areas, focusing on creating biodiversity, instead of a concrete jungle. Public areas must be accessible to all people, regardless of financial standing, at all times, and must inspire social interaction: this includes appropriately placed seating which encourages conversations, and more play areas for children. For the sake of environmental sustainability, a wider canopy is needed, which means different species of trees so that there is more shade. This will reduce the urban heat island effect and decrease the metropolis’ unsustainable reliance on air conditioning.

Many of the issues that governments globally face in urban areas are saturated with questions of class. Hong Kong is no different, being one of the most unequal regions in the world. Widespread political reform needs to be instituted for more equitable access to land. This must be achieved through nationalisation, the revamping of regulations governing existing public space to introduce biodiversity and foster environment conducive to the building of social capital which has eroded substantially during the era of neoliberalism. Only then will Hong Kong realise sustainable social and environmental development.

Header Image: Nan Lian Garden (author’s own)


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Image 1 and Header – Beckett-Hester, F. (2018) Hong Kong, taken: 29th June 2018.

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