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.

 
 
 
 

Everybody hates the Midlands, and other lessons from YouGov’s latest spurious polling

Dorset, which people like, for some reason. Image: Getty.

Just because you’re paranoid, the old joke runs, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. By the same token: just because I’m an egomaniac, doesn’t mean that YouGov isn’t commissioning polls of upwards of 50,000 people aimed at me, personally.

Seriously, that particular pollster has form for this: almost exactly a year ago, it published the results of a poll about London’s tube network that I’m about 98 per cent certain* was inspired by an argument Stephen Bush and I had been having on Twitter, at least partly on the grounds that it was the sort of thing that muggins here would almost certainly write up. 

And, I did write it up – or, to put it another way, I fell for it. So when, 364 days later, the same pollster produces not one but two polls, ranking Britain’s cities and counties respectively, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that CityMetric and YouGuv are now locked in a co-dependent and potentially abusive relationship.

But never mind that now. What do the polls tell us?

Let’s start with the counties

Everybody loves the West Country

YouGov invited 42,000 people to tell it whether or not they liked England’s 47 ceremonial counties for some reason. The top five, which got good reviews from between 86 and 92 per cent of respondents, were, in order: Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, North Yorkshire and Somerset. That’s England’s four most south westerly counties. And North Yorkshire.

So: almost everyone likes the South West, though whether this is because they associate it with summer holidays or cider or what, the data doesn’t say. Perhaps, given the inclusion of North Yorkshire, people just like countryside. That would seem to be supported by the fact that...


Nobody really likes the metropolitan counties

Greater London was stitched together in 1965. Nine years later, more new counties were created to cover the metropolitan areas of Manchester, Liverpool (Merseyside), Birmingham (the West Midlands), Newcastle (Tyne&Wear), Leeds (West Yorkshire and Sheffield (South Yorkshire). Actually, there were also new counties covering Teesside (Cleveland) and Bristol/Bath (Avon), too, but those have since been scrapped, so let’s ignore them.

Not all of those seven counties still exist in any meaningful governmental sense – but they’re still there for ’ceremonial purposes’, whatever that means. And we now know, thanks to this poll, that – to the first approximation – nobody much likes any of them. The only one to make it into the top half of the ranking is West Yorkshire, which comes 12th (75 per cent approval); South Yorkshire (66 per cent) is next, at 27th. Both of those, it may be significant, have the name of a historic county in their name.

The ones without an ancient identity to fall back on are all clustered near the bottom. Tyne & Wear is 30th out of 47 (64 per cent), Greater London 38th (58 per cent), Merseyside 41st (55 per cent), Greater Manchester 42nd (53 per cent)... Not even half of people like the West Midlands (49 per cent, placing it 44th out of 47). Although it seems to suffer also from the fact that...

Everybody hates the Midlands

Honestly, look at that map:

 

Click to expand.

The three bottom rated counties, are all Midlands ones: Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire – which, hilariously, with just 40 per cent approval, is a full seven points behind its nearest rival, the single biggest drop on the entire table.

What the hell did Bedfordshire ever do to you, England? Honestly, it makes Essex’s 50 per cent approval rate look pretty cheery.

While we’re talking about irrational differences:

There’s trouble brewing in Sussex

West Sussex ranks 21st, with a 71 per cent approval rating. But East Sussex is 29th, at just 65 per cent.

Honestly, what the fuck? Does the existence of Brighton piss people off that much?

Actually, we know it doesn’t because thanks to YouGov we have polling.

No, Brighton does not piss people off that much

Click to expand.

A respectable 18th out of 57, with a 74 per cent approval rating. I guess it could be dragged up by how much everyone loves Hove, but it doesn’t seem that likely.

London is surprisingly popular

Considering how much of the national debate on these things is dedicated to slagging off the capital – and who can blame people, really, given the state of British politics – I’m a bit surprised that London is not only in the top half but the top third. It ranks 22nd, with an approval rating of 73 per cent, higher than any other major city except Edinburgh.

But what people really want is somewhere pretty with a castle or cathedral

Honestly, look at the top 10:

City % who like the city Rank
York 92% 1
Bath 89% 2
Edinburgh 88% 3
Chester 83% 4
Durham 81% 5
Salisbury 80% 6
Truro 80% 7
Canterbury 79% 8
Wells 79% 9
Cambridge 78% 10

These people don’t want cities, they want Christmas cards.

No really, everyone hates the Midlands

Birmingham is the worst-rated big city, coming 47th with an approval rating of just 40 per cent. Leicester, Coventry and Wolverhampton fare even worse.

What did the Midlands ever do to you, Britain?

The least popular city is Bradford, which shows that people are awful

An approval rating of just 23 per cent. Given that Bradford is lovely, and has the best curries in Britain, I’m going to assume that

a) a lot of people haven’t been there, and

b) a lot of people have dodgy views on race relations.

Official city status is stupid

This isn’t something I learned from the polls exactly, but... Ripon? Ely? St David’s? Wells? These aren’t cities, they’re villages with ideas above their station.

By the same token, some places that very obviously should be cities are nowhere to be seen. Reading and Huddersfield are conspicuous by their absence. Middlesbrough and Teesside are nowhere to be seen.

I’ve ranted about this before – honestly, I don’t care if it’s how the queen likes it, it’s stupid. But what really bugs me is that YouGov haven’t even ranked all the official cities. Where’s Chelmsford, the county town of Essex, which attained the dignity of official city status in 2012? Or Perth, which managed at the same time? Or St Asaph, a Welsh village of 3,355 people? Did St Asaph mean nothing to you, YouGov?

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

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

*A YouGov employee I met in a pub later confirmed this, and I make a point of always believing things that people tell me in pubs.