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.

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.