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.

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.