I have recently returned from a week in Hong Kong. What an extraordinary place, 6,000 miles away, in the heart of Asia and yet with many features that make it familiar to and navigable by a seasoned Londoner. There’s an extensive public transport network, a central waterway, a swaggering financial hub, an artisanal quarter, ritzy stores, tatty shops, markets, museums, restaurants galore, street food, obscene wealth divergence, noise, bustle and even a craft beer movement. 

This came as a welcome reminder that major cities all over the world share a common language and can be unlocked using a similar code. 

But, in the time since my last visit 25 years ago, Hong Kong has become significantly different from my idea of the perfect big smoke. 

Due to limited space, Hong Kong has always favoured high-rise buildings for domestic and commercial accommodation. I have no issue with this in principle. I heart New York, after all! In Hong Kong, however, this preference has ballooned to vertical living on steroids. 30, 40, 50 storey towers, often in superblocks that can eclipse the sun, dominate the skyline. At street level, in my experience, this turned every stroll into the Boxing Day sales.

Also, while there are some beautiful parks in Hong Kong’s urban nucleus (Victoria Park, Kowloon Park and Hollywood Road Park are good examples), the overall impression is of a relentlessly active ecosystem with relatively few amenities for recreational activity or for simply relaxing by connecting with nature. I did walk past a couple of so-called ‘sitting out areas’ but they looked and felt more like lay-bys than genuine havens. 

Interestingly, an article in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) from 4th November 2017, entitled ‘Will a lack of open space damage generations of Hongkongers?’, argued that poor urban planning and restricted access to outdoor public spaces are indeed affecting both the mental and physical health of the city’s residents, with immediate and potentially future consequences. Tellingly, Hong Kong has fallen to 75th out of 156 in the United Nations (UN) global ranking of happiness, its lowest ever position. 

To make the point even more graphically, the SCMP piece highlighted a study from 2016 which found that the average open space available for each Hongkonger was about two square metres, the size of a coffin or a lavatory cubicle!   

As such, Hong Kong falls foul of some contemporary wisdom on how the built environment can impact the health and wellbeing of its inhabitants. The result is that while Hong Kong is a metropolis where I have rarely felt so stimulated and so safe, I still doubt that I could live there.  

And here we have one of the most complex and important challenges of our time. Why? Because, by 2050, the UN predicts that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas, adding, combined with population growth, a staggering 2.5 billion people to municipal communities. 

Close to 90% of this increase will take place in Asia and Africa. Hong Kong, therefore, is not alone. For context, Lagos, a city of 200,000 souls in 1960, could by 2100 be the home to more people than inhabit Britain today, between 85 and 100 million. And then there are Bangalore, Kinshasa, Guiyang …. the list goes on.

So, what’s the answer? Given that urban agglomeration will continue, it seems that sustainable urbanisation holds the key, especially in the lower income countries where the pace of change is projected to be the fastest.  

Reassuringly, there are signs that mistakes are being recognised and that intelligent policy is being implemented. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group evidences collaboration and knowledge sharing among 90 of the world’s greatest cities. The World Urban Forum, held every two years and hosted by UN-Habitat, is showcasing innovation across the globe in new technology, localised renewable energy, green infrastructure and integrated public transit, all designed to enable smarter city planning.

In practice, the success of a few cities with a more sustainable agenda also gives some cause for optimism. Singapore, for example, has managed to increase its urban density and green space at the same time. Seoul, too, has adopted strategies within its development plan that prioritise environmental and community benefits.

As for Hong Kong, it is apparently the perfect location for feng shui (literally, ‘wind water’), the ancient Chinese practice of aligning buildings and objects so that they attract good luck and ward off misfortune. Ideally, houses and cities are supposed to be near water and bound by mountains. That’ll be Hong Kong, then.

Certainly, feng shui is a big deal there with fascinating tales of how the designs of landmark buildings in the central business district have been influenced by the pursuit of prosperous energy. And, although not entirely approved of in Beijing, there are plenty of local advocates who claim that adherence to feng shui principles contributes to Hong Kong’s wealth and to its people’s wellbeing. 

In my view, it will take more than harmonising wind and water to make Hong Kong a liveable, sustainable neighbourhood. To visit, however, it’s a blast!