Closer proximity to open spaces is likely to lower anxiety in Hongkongers, a think tank has found.

A Civic Exchange study said that respondents who visited open spaces more frequently reported feeling happier in the two weeks preceding the survey. A companion study also found that those who lived closer to parks and small open spaces larger than 0.1 hectare but less than 1 hectare are more likely to report less anxiety. Analysts concluded that living close to open spaces provides some mental health benefits in reducing stress and improving one’s mood.

kerry hotel
Open space in Kerry Hotel. File photo: HKPSI.

“Because we have small living space and limited land for public open space development, creating high-quality, inclusive recreational open space is critically important to maintain the psychological well-being of our residents,” said Winnie Cheung, CEO of Civic Exchange. “Our studies have established a link between having easy and frequent access to open space and better emotional well-being.”

Analysts, however, said that more research is needed to determine whether open spaces make people feel happier or people who are happier to begin with visit open spaces more.

Civic exchange open spaces
When asked what activities they do in open spaces, most respondents answered with walking (74 per cent) and relaxing or resting (68 per cent). Photo: Civic Exchange.

Civic Exchange conducted the public opinion survey among 3,600 Hongkongers across 18 districts on the quality of open space between January and February this year. It also held four focus groups with eight participants each – three of which represented parents, young adults aged 18 to 29, and the elderly aged 60 and above. The fourth consisted of adults aged 35 to 55 living in various housing types, including public housing, private industrial buildings and private development spaces.

The think tank found that around 85 per cent of Hongkongers visit open spaces at least once a month.

Older district residents less satisfied

Among those surveyed, Sha Tin and Southern District residents said they were most satisfied with the quality of open spaces in their communities, while those in Wan Chai and Yau Tsim Mong were the least satisfied. Those in the Southern District enjoyed the highest level of waterfront usage in Hong Kong, with half of the respondents making a trip at least once a month.

Civic exchange open spaces
Photo: Civic Exchange.

Those in private industrial buildings reported being the least satisfied with the quality of open spaces in their neighbourhoods and visited them less often than those in public housing, Home Ownership Scheme flats, or large private developments.

“Unlike large estates, private individual buildings rarely have any open space directly downstairs. Therefore, I think this is affecting residents’ satisfaction,” Carine Lai, Civic Exchange Senior Researcher, told HKFP.

Those polled aged 60 and above visited open spaces almost 14 times a month on average, while 16 to 29-year-old respondents went to open spaces 11 times a month. People in their 40s visited open spaces around nine times a month.

Flexible guidelines

Civic Exchange recommended that the government design inclusive open spaces and planning guidelines to cater to the needs of people of all ages.

Civic exchange open spaces
Photo: Civic Exchange.

“With our ageing society, special consideration should be paid to the open space needs of the elderly, but a balance needs to be struck to cater for the youth and other demographic groups as well,” Lai said.

The think tank also urged open space providers to experiment with more creative management of selected locations – for example, encouraging activities such as frisbees, kite-flying, or roller skating in certain zones.

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with an average concentration of 32,100 people per square kilometre, according to Civic Exchange. Last year, the think tank found that urban residents enjoy less than half as much open space as residents of other Asian metropolises, including Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore.

Civic Exchange crowd-funded the study, obtaining more than HK$300,000 to analyse statistics on open space for almost a year.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.