Well-being in the Urban Age

The Hong Kong Urban Age conference is the tenth in a series of investigations into the future of cities. Since 2005 we have explored regions of the world that are rapidly urbanising and where cities are experiencing significant, and sometimes traumatic, growth. With more than half of the world’s population already living in cities, this year we ask ourselves the question: how do cities affect the health and well-being of more than three billion urban dwellers? From Mexico City, São Paulo and New York in the Americas, to Johannesburg in Africa, Shanghai and Mumbai in Asia, London and Berlin in Europe – and Istanbul straddling the two continents – the Urban Age has studied metropolitan areas with a collective population of more than 120 million people. Now we turn our attention to the unique conditions of the city-state of Hong Kong, adding a further seven million residents at the gateway of the People’s Republic of China, a country that, along with India, is spearheading the epochal shift from rural to urban habitation.

The cities studied so far present an uneven social and spatial landscape, illustrated by our research published in Living in the Endless City (Phaidon, 2011). Hong Kong adds a new dimension to these global statistics. Peak population densities achieved in New York and Shanghai are dwarfed by Hong Kong, leaving London and Mexico City well behind. Its compact urban form and highly efficient public transport system makes Hong Kong one of the greenest cities of the Urban Age sample. Only 6 per cent of the population use private cars and nearly 90 per cent take boats, trams and trains or walk, surpassing New York and London, where 58 per cent and 63 per cent respectively use public transport. While income inequality is as high as in Mexico City or New York, murder rates are the lowest of all Urban Age cities.

By looking at Hong Kong through the lens of urban health and well-being, we discovered its citizens can also expect to live longer than most in the world – 82.5 years compared to 51 in Johannesburg or 72 in Istanbul. We learnt that, despite high health outcomes, pollution can reach dangerous levels and that the pressure on space and high real estate prices, especially in central areas, affect all aspects of urban life: from how many children people choose to have, to how often they can play their favourite sports and how they socialise with friends and family. Like other world cities, Hong Kong displays distinctive patterns of social and spatial inequalities that are reflected in the quality of life of its citizens.

For these reasons, we chose to use Hong Kong as a platform for research and debate on the complex links between cities, health and well-being. Not because it is more problematic than others, but because it concentrates the conflicts and opportunities of living in a dense urban environment. The initial results of this enquiry are set out in the essay that follows, informed by reflections by international scholars and practitioners whose insights can be accessed online.

The rest of this conference newspaper is then divided into two parts. The first offers a global comparison between cities, while the second focuses on Hong Kong. Global patterns of urbanisation and health are followed by comparative data on growth, density, age distribution, workforce and transport in nine Urban Age cities, including Hong Kong. The spatial, social and health DNA of Hong Kong is then explored in greater depth, through a series of essays, data analysis and new qualitative research on high-density neighbourhoods carried out by LSE Cities and the University of Hong Kong.

Since the establishment of LSE Cities in 2010 – an international centre based at the London School of Economics and Political Science supported by Deutsche Bank – we have worked on specific annual themes that form an interdisciplinary enquiry into cities, based on linking the physical and social worlds that we construct around ourselves.

Last year we worked closely with the US-based Brookings Institution to understand how cities can respond to economic challenges and jointly developed a Global MetroMonitor of economic performance of more than 150 metropolitan regions across the world (globalmetrosummit.net/gmm/). This year we have extended this approach to understanding urban health, developing a new index of health for 129 metropolitan regions, as part of a research project that will be expanded with new partners and cities. In 2012, under the banner of the ‘electric city’, we will focus on how metropolitan centres can be designed, managed and governed to be more smart, exploring the economic potential of green cities and their impact on society and the environment, holding the Urban Age conference in London during the Olympic year.

By bringing together urban experts in planning, health, design and governance from four different continents, it is our hope that the Hong Kong Urban Age conference will contribute to our understanding of the links between cities, health and well-being, kick-starting new lines of research, enquiry and practice that will help make cities more liveable in a world where at least 70 per cent of us will be urban by 2050.

Ricky Burdett, Director, LSE Cities, London School of Economics and Political Science

Wolfgang Nowak, Managing Director, Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society