Urban planning

Access to open space improves mental health, but Hong Kong lags far behind Singapore and Seoul in providing it for residents

  • Report from Civic Exchange links parks and public spaces to reduction in anxiety
  • But residents have measly 2.7 square metres of open space each, while regional rival gives citizens 7.4 square metres.
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2018, 12:06pm

Hongkongers who live closer to parks and small open spaces use them more often and generally suffer from less anxiety, a think tank survey has found.

The Civic Exchange said creating high-quality, inclusive recreational open spaces was “critically important” for the psychological well-being of residents in a city as dense and built-up as Hong Kong.

On average, residents enjoy a measly 2.7 square metres (29 sq ft) of open space, compared to Singapore’s 7.4 square metres and Seoul’s 6.1 square metres.

The think tank polled 3,600 adults between January and February on what they thought about the quality of open spaces across the city’s 18 districts, from playgrounds, mall podiums and sitting-out areas, to vacant lots, promenades and the outdoor areas of housing estates.

In one question, respondents were asked how worried they felt in the preceding two weeks. The data was then combined with a geospatial analysis of the city’s public open spaces.

“The results show that people who live closer to certain types of public open spaces were more likely to report less worry than those who live farther away,” the report read.

“Living close to open spaces may therefore provide some mental health benefits in reducing stress and improving mood.”

The survey also found that proximity was also more associated with usage than the total availability.

About 97 per cent said they visited open space within walking distance of their homes as opposed to 15 per cent who frequented them near work or schools, for example.

But, the survey also found while most residents of older, denser urban districts lived in the closest proximity to open spaces, they tended to have the least open space per capita, and residents were least satisfied with quality. These included Wan Chai, Yau Tsim Mong, and Kwai Tsing.

“It is important for people to live near open spaces, but this also raises the question of whether they live next to good quality open space,” said senior researcher Carine Lai Man-yin, lead author of the report.

“We actually find that in older, urban districts, people are less satisfied with the quality of open space and are less likely to use them.”

By contrast, Sha Tin, Tai Po, and Southern residents were among the most satisfied with their open spaces, possibly because of the provision of high quality open spaces such as waterfronts, promenades and more greenery and landscaping.

The overall median satisfaction score of open space quality in Hong Kong was a middling six out of 10.

Among the many restrictions common in public open spaces, dog walking was the activity the most respondents wanted lifted, followed by cycling, playing music and ball games.

Public spaces in Hong Kong should truly be for the people

Asked what improvements people wanted, most chose more cycling, jogging and walking paths, places to sit and chat, trees and shrubs, and – among the younger demographic – grassy lawns to sit on.

Civic Exchange CEO Winnie Cheung Chi-woon said the government should take into account the city’s ageing society in open space planning.

“This research indicates that different age groups have different aspirations,” she said.

Residents over 60, for instance, visited open spaces more frequently than the younger demographic, albeit usually alone and for passive activities.

And the most popular uses were passive – walking (74 per cent), resting or relaxing (68 per cent), socialising (33 per cent), waiting or killing time (30 per cent), and enjoying fresh air or nature (23 per cent).

Will a lack of open space damage generations of Hongkongers?

About a third used public spaces for active uses, such as jogging, tai chi, yoga or stretching, and just 15 per cent used them for ball sports.

The think tank recommended the government look more creatively at how to improve the design of existing open spaces, rather than following rigid “cut and dried” standards that often made public spaces and parks unappealing, uncomfortable and bounded by rules.

“Tailor-made guidelines should be developed for inclusive open space design to balance the priorities and needs of different demographic groups and districts,” Lai said. “We would also encourage more flexible management of open spaces.”

Psychiatrist Dr Chan Chung-mau, chairman of the Hong Kong Association for the Promotion of Mental Health, said everyone needed a “comfort zone” to take a break.

“A person’s emotional state could be less stable if the environment is too crowded and too noisy,” said Chan, adding that such conditions also raised risks of common mental disorders.