Hong Kong needs more public open space, for people’s physical and mental well-being
Layla McCay and Paul Yip say a wealth of research points to the positive effects of public space, but it needs to be a natural environment, not a paved area with a few potted plants, for us to enjoy the full benefits
Space is one of Hong Kong’s scarcest resources: a luxury commodity, available to those who can afford to pay. Sometimes, private space expands at the expense of public space. Even in public housing, private amenities like kitchens and bathrooms have driven the demise of communal facilities and seen us retreat further into our own small spaces, our neighbours becoming strangers. With half of the city’s households living in spaces smaller than 500 square feet, we need that public space to compensate; to stretch, relax, play and interact with our communities. It comes as no surprise to see so much mental unwellness arising from a shortage of space.
When we spend every day within a dense urban environment, it affects how we feel. It also affects our mental health: it can make us stressed, anxious and depressed. But it doesn’t have to. Densely built environments can strengthen any urban population’s ability to enjoy life, cope with stress, work productively and contribute to our communities. Public open space is at the heart of this effect. But Hong Kong has a public space deficit.
We could learn from the groups of older people who punctuate Hong Kong’s morning and evening landscape with their postures. In this dense city, they find places to conduct a synchrony of tai chi, qigong or stretching exercises in public parks and housing estate gardens, university plazas, on piers and in other odd corners. By appropriating public space every day, they pick up three ingredients we all need to build our mental health resilience: physical activity, positive social interaction and nature exposure.
Physical activity does not only improve physical health; it improves mood, self-esteem and overall mental well-being. It can be as effective as medication for mild and moderate depression. But long working hours make it hard for some people to fit in exercise. Using convenient local spaces rather than having to travel to designated exercise venues can help. That’s why walkability is so valued in cities.
Ideally, we would all be walking daily in country parks, but many people lack time, energy or motivation. Urban walking integrates exercise into our daily routines without special effort. The MTR is particularly good at making us stride briskly through underground and overground walkways every day towards our destinations.
Increasing the city’s bikeability would further help integrate daily activity for more people, but safety concerns inhibit cycling as a practical mode of transport in Hong Kong. Perhaps a future Hong Kong will start to transfer some of the city’s infrastructure away from cars and towards protected cycling and walking routes to promote health for all. These opportunities should be considered in new developments like Kowloon East.
Importantly, group exercisers do not just reap the benefits of regular physical activity; by meeting in public spaces they create community and belonging. This is enviable because, in a city of more than 7 million people, it is easy to feel isolated, ensconced in tiny enclosed spaces, suspended hundreds of feet above the social realm with scarce meaningful conversation.
Research finds positive, natural social interaction protects our mental well-being. Having nearby friends and family to confide in and spend time with increases happiness and our mental resilience. We develop social capital that helps us cope. By participating in and contributing to a community, we feel we belong somewhere beyond our place of work or study. This reduces loneliness and anxiety, and improves memory and intellectual performance for students, workers and older people alike.
Whether communal exercise groups at sunrise, or domestic workers settling on a street for a Sunday dose of chat and laughter, some groups in Hong Kong seem better than others at harnessing the positive social opportunities of public space to build community, social capital and mental well-being. With cost often a barrier to accessing private space in Hong Kong, we need to get better at using public space for social interaction. For example, the latest public housing developments help compensate for small living areas with communal spaces conducive to resident interaction. Beyond the home, designers of Hong Kong’s public spaces could invest more, not only in ushering us into the nearest shopping malls, but in helping us slow down and chat.
We need indoor and outdoor public spaces, but regular exposure to nature is particularly beneficial because it reduces stress and depression, while improving social and brain function. For people with dementia, nature improves their mood and reduces aggression. Such benefits have long been understood by hospitals: views of nature help people heal faster and more effectively from physical and mental health problems. Many researchers have found links between neighbourhood greenness and mental health. Hong Kong’s country parks are extremely valuable for mental health and well-being. But within the urban core, green places can be harder to find, particularly places where we can feel immersed in nature.
The public spaces many people encounter are mostly paved for ease of maintenance, with natural elements limited to single species of plants confined to pots and planters. There are many theories about how nature helps our mental well-being, but most focus on the complexity and diversity of nature: while cities are built with block colours, nature offers a full spectrum of variation; cities give us straight lines, shapes made by nature can be unruly and complex; while city landscapes are man-made, nature brings us into contact with other species.
All of this enables our brains to relax into a state of attention without concentration. It takes us away from everyday stress. Nature grounds us in time and place as it changes according to the seasons. By focusing on planting single-species trees that always look as perfect as a tree emoji and not designing more social spaces around nature, Hong Kong’s urban parks do not access the full value of nature. Urban parks should be improved for more mental health value.
In a dense city without much open space, it is understandable that people gathering for group exercises or socialising sometimes prompt complaints about inconveniences from those not part of these communities. But Hongkongers should learn from these groups and seek regulations to maximise use of public spaces: unlocking gates to schools and providing access to parts of private clubs’ publicly owned grounds, along with organisations and residences. More public open spaces in Hong Kong could increase the whole city’s health and happiness.
Layla McCay is director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, and an AsiaGlobal Fellow at Hong Kong University. Paul Yip is director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at HKU