Hong Kong housing

How Hongkongers’ tweets are helping architects to improve urban designs

Hong Kong is the perfect urban laboratory to study the correlation between stress and housing design, a study that can help us design better homes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 January, 2017, 8:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 January, 2017, 8:31am

Architects use a lot of digital tools in their work, but Twitter isn’t usually one of them.

Three years ago, Huang Jianxiang left his job in the United States and moved to Hong Kong to become an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s architecture school.

“It was such a cultural shock – the density, the crowdedness, the lack of public space,” he recalled.

Compared to the spaciousness of American cities, Hong Kong’s endless high-rises and cramped apartments felt maddening.

That’s when Huang asked himself: “Do certain types of neighbourhoods make you happy – or drive you nuts?”

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The answer, it turned out, could be found online.

Huang and his wife, Li Lishuai, a data scientist at City University, together hatched a plan to use social media to track how people felt about their surroundings.

“This is probably the best place in the world to study social media and the built environment,” Huang said.

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Most Hongkongers have smartphones and use social media. And because the city is so dense, it was easy for the pair to find a large sample of people in any given location.

Many tweets were tagged with the location of the person who wrote them, so Huang’s team collected thousands of these messages and developed an algorithm that scanned them for keywords. That information was then used to determine the sentiment of the person.

The results showed rich neighbourhoods weren’t necessarily happier than poor neighbourhoods. Instead, it was how neighbourhoods were built that affected people’s happiness.

This is probably the best place in the world to study social media and the built environment
Huang Jianxiang

“We found big blocks correlated with negative sentiments, while people living in small blocks appeared happier,” he said.

Huang pointed to two areas with similar income levels and amenities: Discovery Bay, a leafy, medium-density enclave on Lantau Island, and Grand Promenade, an enormous luxury housing estate with five 60-storey towers on the shores of Victoria Harbour.

Tweets from Discovery Bay were more positive than those from Grand Promenade.

“What better way to spend Thursday than drinking boxed wine on the beach and watching the dragon boats?” read one Discovery Bay tweet.

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Huang was even able to pinpoint the type of building that made people least happy. He called it the “hashtag form” – a convoluted structure allowing developers to build as densely as possible while still meeting the legal requirement for each apartment to have natural light.

The result is a high-rise block with deep, narrow courtyards lined by water and sewage pipes.

For Huang, the potential use of his findings was obvious: stop designing cities that make people unhappy.

“The challenge is to pack a lot of people into compact spaces,” Chris Webster, the dean of HKU’s Faculty of Architecture, said.

“How do you optimise that?”

It’s a question that architects and urban planners worldwide continue to try to answer, especially in Hong Kong where universities have long used the city’s exceptionally dense environment as a laboratory to figure out how we should – and shouldn’t – build the cities of the future.

This is an abridged version of an article, which appeared in the January-February 2017 edition of The Peak magazine, available by invitation and at selected book stores.