Density and Space: Hong Kong

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From every point of view, housing in Hong Kong is staggering: in height, in density, in sheer numbers and cost. 

Hong Kong density buildings

Hong Kong is one of the most expensive places to live. It has also some of the most densely packed places in the world.

It all comes down to too many people and a scarcity of homes.

Providing housing for so many people, in such constrained spatial circumstances is a phenomenal task. 

Hong Kong dense housing blocks

But in Hong Kong they have been doing this for years. They have literally moved mountains, and reclaimed land to build housing on land that is steep and unprepossessing. Very quickly, they can create virtual cities and new urban habitats. They plan and build for a growing population in a land mass that is part country park, part totally unbuildable, and part very densely overbuilt.

To put this into perspective. Hong Kong has a population of nearly 7.5 million in a land mass 1,050 km² (405 sq miles).  By comparison, County Armagh is 1326 km² with a population of 174, 792  (2011). Northern Ireland’s population is currently 1.8 million.  It is very hard to imagine 7.5 million people living in our orchard county, County Armagh. 

So many people… and they all have to live somewhere.

Hong Kong an amazing place. It shouldn’t work – but it does. But that is all down to Hong Kong people’s natural sense of entrepreneurship, their attitude of just getting on with it and their ability to adapt to living in high density – inside and out.

women sitting on road in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong density affects everyone. Every Sunday the streets in the centre of Hong Kong close so that  hundreds of live-in helpers ( amahs) can occupy the space. They have nowhere else to meet, or to go, on their one day off in the week. 

These (mainly  Filipina) women set up temporary ‘camps’ from cardboard  appropriating the walkways, roads, gardens and pavements of Central. They create their own pitch, as a place where they can meet their friends. The cardboard, used flat or to box in the space, designates their spot. Having a regular spot means they can easily meet their friends as they become a fixture on the Sunday scene. The next day the street is occupied by cars and buses and city business people. There is no sign at all that they were ever there – until they reclaim it all again a week later. 

Inside Hong Kong’s Caged Homes, ( 2018) an excellent video by Vox Borders shows examples of how some HK people have to live in very cramped, unhealthy and appalling conditions. They make clear that this situation is not just down to the lack of available, or buildable land, but Hong Kong’ Government’s policy of restricting land leases, thereby pushing prices up and up.

Back and White view of housing density

Of course it is more affordable to live in a newly developed area in the far reaches of Hong Kong.  There you would have a bigger, newer home. But many people like to live in the urban areas and have the convenience of density. So yes, there are some advantages to density. Moving to a new town where you do not know anyone may not suit everyone- especially where the infrastructure is not so well developed and there is no family support.

boats and houses on river

Foreigners in Hong Kong on lower incomes tend to live in islands such as Lamma and Lantau. Density, where they come from may not be such an issue. They may be used to living in spacious homes. Like New York and San Francisco it is somewhat of a culture shock to see just how little you get for your money in Hong Kong. In the outlying islands rents are much cheaper and the pace of life is generally slower in these rural, village settings. People commute by ferry into Central but in other parts of Lantau transport has dramatically improved because of the airport infrastructure.  

Why is Hong Kong so densely crowded?

crowds in street density

Pre and post-war saw an influx of immigrants from China into Hong Kong. At that time the British territory was still in a state of recovery and accommodation expensive and thin on the ground. People resorted to DIY measures, living in squatter villages which sprang up on hillsides, on top of buildings, in factories and under stair wells. 

Throughout the 1950’s and ‘60’s existing tenement housing was divided, sub-divided and sub-divided again. Families shared with other families, not just kitchen and bathing facilities but also floor space. They erected cock lofts and used triple height space bunkbeds, each bedspace a ‘home’ for each family.

Crowded conditions, poor accommodation and lack of privacy was the norm. Pretty much everyone was in the same boat. People developed coping mechanisms and learned to live an externalised lifestyle – outside of the home.  

dense housing block

One such building, Kowloon Walled City, became a notorious centre for Triad activity, construction, habitatation and illegal light industry. It is a perfect example of what can happen when legal issues mean that existing planning laws cannot be applied. When people ‘choose’ to live in a squalid space it is because that may be all they can afford. There were an estimated 33-50,000 people living in 2.7 hectares. This was density  – at its very worst.

From the original footprint Kowloon Walled City  morphed into a massive precarious structure, a hell hole of darkness and decrepitude until it was finally demolished in 1994.

It was built ad hoc, with makeshift facilities that were unrestricted and largely unmonitored. The result was a shocking amorphous structure like something out of Bladerunner, a sci-fi post-apocalyptic world. A Dystopia – rather than Utopia. It was a subterranean-type space with water dripping into the access corridors. But people adjusted to living there, they adapted and coped. They got used to the space, to life inside the ‘city’. Despite its dangerous and appalling physical state some still have fond memories of it. That says a lot about HK people’s resilience and ability to adapt.

In the same context, in the post-war period,  Squatter villages, such as Diamond Hill, Pok Fu Lam Shek Kip Mei housed thousands of people in shacks, some of which were quite substantial. Many of these homes were actually better in terms of accommodation than people would have had living in the tenements. Although illegal, because they were built on Crown land, these villages were tolerated and closely monitored, by the local authorities.  Fires were a constant hazard and when 53,000 people lost their homes in Shek Kip Mei fire on Christmas night 1953, this is what finally prompted the authorities to step in with a more lasting solution to the housing problem.

This was to be the start of what was to become a massive housing programme. 

old housing blocks density

Designed initially, as emergency standard housing according to a set quantitative measure per person this was a no frills design – some might say primitive. Barrack-like buildings housed back to back ‘rooms’ with communal latrines and cooking done outside on the external balcony. It was ‘ housing’ insomuch as people were ‘housed’ in a space, – a space that was just about as basic as it was possible to be. And yet, 40 years on, this accommodation was still used as viable housing. People had to live somewhere.

From these lowly beginnings the Hong Kong Housing Authority has gone on to achieve phenomenal success and steadily improved the design and quality of its housing. But along the way, these older housing estates  such as Choi Hung, were built (1962-64)  to accommodate over 40,000 people.

colourful housing block and play area

Vast public housing estates dominate the urban and suburban environment. Complete with shops, wet markets, restaurants and schools, this is urbanisation in a grand scale – at high density. Think British New Towns only more brutal, more concrete, more condensed. 

These are huge blocks inhabited by many, many people and the estates are successful, largely because the infrastructure of density means that amenities are close to hand.  With the growth of the urban sprawl  most local village areas were subsumed and urban green areas built upon, or concreted over.

In the early days schools were built on rooftops of the re-settlement blocks. Later, this developed into  a situation where the same building might be used by two schools – one am, the other pm sessions. These were separate schools with their own principals, teachers and students, but using the same desks, rooms and space.

green balconies housing block

This concept might not work anywhere else. It may never have to be an option anywhere else. But in Hong Kong flexibility of use, dual purpose space and clever thinking to develop the best use for all available space is just another effect of density. This is how people live.

view looking down road markings

See also: Rooney, Nuala (2003) At Home with Density, Hong Kong: HKU Press

List of illustrations

  1. Far-Far: Unsplash
  2. Kotaro-Maruyam: Unsplash
  3. Nuala Rooney
  4. Damon Lam: Unsplash
  5. Keith Hardy: Unsplash
  6. Nuala Rooney
  7. Nuala Rooney
  8. Creative Commons
  9. Banter-snaps: Unsplash
  10. Chromatagraph: Unsplash
  11. Keith Chan: Unsplash
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Nuala Rooney PhD, is a creative professional and award-winning author, currently developing new approaches to design innovation and spatial research through storytelling. With unique skillsets, developed as a design educator in Higher Education institutions in UK and Hong Kong, her interest lies in exploring 'home' as a human centred space.

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