Lessons in building for mental health from Tokyo and Hong Kong

The Shibuya crossing, Tokyo. Image: Getty.

Standing in the right place, deep within the density of tower blocks and the throng of crowds and the neon glow of kanji, is a snapshot of humanity’s future. We could be on the set of Blade Runner.

But sci-fi films are not the only way to envision our overcrowded, hyper-urban future. Asian megacities offer a present day glimpse of what the world’s soaring population and rising urbanisation could mean for how we will live. By doing so, these cities also hold clues about how to futureproof our sanity.

As more people flock to cities, we need solutions that balance urban density with liveability. Hong Kong and Tokyo are both super-ageing cities known for their tall buildings, long working hours, efficient underground trains, and tiny living spaces. In both cities, stress and loneliness are common complaints, suicide is not uncommon, and at least one in five people experience a serious mental illness in their lifetime. Like anywhere, many factors mediate these risks: genetics, upbringing, employment, certain physical illnesses.

But these one more factor whose impact is only now emerging as a key determinant of mental health: the built environment. Modifying the settings where we live, work and play is not just the next big public health opportunity; it is a key to the resilience that companies, cities and countries seek for their populations.

The built environment affects mental health in two important ways. First, by over-stimulation. Cities can provide social and cultural stimulation that surpasses that of rural settings. Everything we see in cities is designed to make us think, feel or act in certain ways. Many of us left our close relationships behind to move to the city, and instead of someone to confide in, every day we encounter tens of thousands of someones. All of this can result in overload: an urge to retreat from this assault on our senses.

Secondly, cities deplete the very factors that strengthen our mental health and build resilience, such as access to green, natural spaces, regular physical activity, and positive social interaction. As the population urbanises, these challenges risk escalating, to the detriment of society’s mental health and wellbeing.


This hyper-urban future is currently the present in many of Asia’s denser cities. Examining how these cities are adapting uncovers clues about our upcoming challenges and emerging solutions.

Growing density and demand for space drives up house prices unsustainably. In the quest for affordable housing solutions, some people in Hong Kong have had to live in ‘cage homes’, tiny ‘caged’ living spaces within subdivided apartments. And through the challenges of this very constrained living, it is becoming clear that affordability and quality of life can be improved through a return to social, communal facilities, from shared kitchens to shared study spaces.

Developments are encroaching on public open space, so in addition to incentivising developers to provide dedicated public spaces, Hong Kong’s population is improvising, appropriating spaces for different uses at different times. University plazas for older people to exercise at dawn before the students swarm in; the grounds of a major bank building, for migrant domestic workers to socialise at the weekends when office staff go home; and even corners of air-conditioned office lobbies have become informal day centres for older people.

Meanwhile in Tokyo, streets are being flexed as public spaces. Vehicle traffic is encouraged to stick to the bigger roads, and in many places, the smaller networks of roads inside these grids are given over largely to roadside plants (often provided and maintained by local residents), pedestrians, and mothers riding mamachari bicycles with several children strapped aboard, stopping to chat outside small and welcoming shops.

Looking at hyper-dense Asian cities also makes it clear that the future could be public transport – the key to which is seamless integration with safe and convenient pedestrian and bike links between stations and destinations. In Tokyo, hills are tackled with electric bicycles; in Hong Kong with free public outdoor escalators. In both cities, residents benefit from the regular physical activity that is naturally integrated into their daily routines.

Nature is good for our mental health, but dense development makes access to greenery challenging. Tokyo and Hong Kong both incentivise developers with tax credits to green their buildings, and invest in urban parks within new developments. But recognising the land use challenges, both cities also prioritise the provision of cheap, convenient public transport access to large swathes of greenery just outside the city. Whether they call it forest bathing (Tokyo) or simply hiking (Hong Kong), it is clear that to fully reap the mental health benefits of nature, we need both urban nature that people can access in the course of their daily routines, and immersive nature that delivers a bigger respite from the city.

What these solutions have in common is the design of settings that facilitate positive social interactions within dense neighbourhoods, enabling participation of people of all ages in shared spaces. These uses of space enable residents to physically see each other. In doing so, they build their social capital and a sense of community belonging. This is incredibly protective for mental health.

If we look to Hong Kong and Tokyo for clues to our future, it becomes clear that while some parts of our future cities might look like Blade Runner on the surface, underneath we may find a dense collection of overlapping villages.

Layla McCay is director of the Centre for Urban Design & Mental Health.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.