Hong Kong's spatial DNA

Hong Kong’s consistent high-rise urban form and extreme population densities mark the city’s urban landscape. In many other cities, a journey outwards from the centre is often accompanied by a shift towards sprawling, low-density suburban development that encroaches on the countryside. Not so in Hong Kong, which is dense and compact throughout the urban region, save for its protected mountainous areas, country parks and wetlands. This is the intended outcome of the government’s tight land regulation policy and investment in a series of new towns, designed from the 1950s onwards to accommodate Hong Kong’s growing population in the New Territories that separate Hong Kong Island and Kowloon from mainland China. Today more than half of Hong Kong’s seven million inhabitants live in the New Territories, approximately two million (30 per cent) live in Kowloon and 1.3 million (19 per cent) on Hong Kong Island (see map below).

While for decades the city-state acted as a quasi-autonomous outpost on the edge of Asia, today Hong Kong marks the southern gateway of a highly urbanised region extending along the Pearl River from Shenzhen to Ghuangzhou – one of the world’s largest and most dispersed urban agglomerations, home to almost 50 million people. With its dense and continuous urban structure, Hong Kong provides a strong regional contrast, reflecting its unique historical conditions and system of government. Around 45 per cent of Hong Kong’s population live in areas with densities of more than 50,000 people per square kilometre. This is approximate to the peak densities found in New York (58,500 people per square kilometre) and Mexico City (49,000 people per square kilometre). Only 6 per cent of Hong Kong’s population lives in areas with less than 5,000 people per square kilometre, compared to 36 per cent in London.

Hong Kong’s high-density neighbour-hoods are made up of different building types (all apartment blocks of some shape or another) that reflect the architectural tastes and technical and material capacities of successive development cycles from the early twentieth century onwards: from the earlier perimeter block ‘walk-ups’, to post-World War II ‘slabs’ and ‘double-tube’ towers and the more recent ‘star-shaped’ towers (see facing page). Apart from the different benefits that come with being located in particular central or peripheral areas and from having access to good public transport – something available to most Hong Kongers to varying degrees – each building type provides advantages and disadvantages to their residents in terms of room and apartment sizes, access to daylight and fresh air, public space and other amenities. LSE Cities carried out an in-depth study of these typologies in 25 areas across Hong Kong to understand the differences between the ways in which high density has been designed, before selecting three of these areas for more detailed analysis of how residents feel living in these high-density environments affects their health and well-being.

Perhaps the city’s most distinctive architectural form is the ‘star-shaped’ tower that marks the skyline of many central areas in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, as well as the edges of the New Territories. Reaching 35 storeys in height, they are often clustered together at extremely close quarters but tend to be designed around ground level open spaces with play and sports facilities for the residents. While these developments do not create a finely structured grid pattern, the lower-rise perimeter blocks that define many of the older parts of the city do generate a continuous active street frontage. Residents of these older areas do not, however, enjoy the use of dedicated open spaces, even though small pockets may be available between blocks – often creatively adapted for play, relaxation or commerce. Although these ‘walk-ups’ rarely reach more than ten floors, the buildings optimise the development potential to the full – and often even more than that – by occupying the entire plot. Internally, the theme of space optimisation is visible in the informal and often illegal sub-division of flats into smaller flats and cubicles, providing relatively affordable but poor-quality, cramped accommodation. Sham Shui Po and the surrounding areas in Kowloon concentrate many of these buildings and its residents have contributed to the focus group interviews described on pp. 44–6.

The mixed high-rise block form, where 30-storey towers co-habit with lower buildings along a distorted grid street pattern, generates some of the densest typologies in Hong Kong, with both residential and commercial activities that have come together over different time periods. The North Point area along the waterfront on Hong Kong Island, one of the city’s densest spots, is defined by large scale, linear ‘superblocks’, some with tall buildings that take advantage of the views of Victoria Harbour, making up in part for the absence of well-designed public open spaces at ground level. In contrast, many of the 1960s and ‘70s developments outside the central districts of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon incorporate open spaces enclosed or surrounded by residential towers which are designed as 30-storey double tubes or ten-storey slabs.

High-density areas in Hong Kong

Star-shaped tower




Perimeter blocks




Mixed high-rise blocks



Double-tube towers


Slab blocks

This research has been led by Jens Kandt, Researcher, LSE Cities, London School of Economics.