The Quality of Life for the Urban Marginality in Hong Kong

  • Hee Sun Choi


This chapter depicts a view of the foreign domestic helpers’ quality of life through their work and activity, and how their activities and quality of life are influenced by the environmental conditions in Hong Kong.


Quality of life Healthy city Urban microclimate 


A healthy city can be defined as ‘one that is continually creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources which enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and in developing to their maximum potential’—World Health Organization (WHO).

Co-existing and contiguous with financial powerhouses of industry that seem to dominate this complex global city are the seemingly powerless: groups of migrant workers living their lives and seeking social interaction within the margins of the city. This research depicts a view from these margins, to show how the activities and quality of life of these workers can be influenced by the environmental conditions of Hong Kong. This chapter focuses on the extent to which public space provides a sense of comfort, health and safety to all users. Data has been gathered relating to the particular user group of foreign domestic helpers (FDHs) and their usage of public and quasi-public space. This data gathering was achieved via site analysis of streets, buildings and open spaces, the most common gathering places for this user group on their rest days. The environmental (air and noise) pollution in these areas has also been measured and assessed.

Healthy City

Lefebvre H. (1991) noted that all urban dwellers have the rights to work, to culture, to rest and to health. A key component in the provision of these rights is the provision of appropriate urban spaces accessible for all users. In 2002 the WHO outlined the important impact the layout and functionality of outdoor spaces can have on social relations within the community, highlighting the follow areas:

  • Public areas are clean and pleasant, without excessive air and noise pollution.

  • Green spaces and outdoor seating are sufficient in number, well maintained and safe.

  • Pavements are well maintained, free of obstructions and reserved for pedestrians.

  • Outdoor safety is promoted by good street lighting, police patrols and community education.

  • Public services are situated together and are accessible.

  • Buildings are well signed outside and inside, with sufficient seating and toilets, accessible elevators, ramps, railings and stairs, and non-slip floors.

  • Public toilets outdoors and indoors are sufficient in number, clean, well maintained and accessible.

Social Participation

  • Venues for events and activities are conveniently located, accessible, well lit and easily reached by public transport.

  • Good information about activities and events is provided, including details about accessibility of facilities and transportation options.

  • There is consistent outreach to include people at risk of social isolation.

The obvious challenge in achieving these things in city development is that as urban areas grow in population, there can be a tendency towards obverse effects on the availability and quality of outdoor space, with Hong Kong Island offering a notable example of this. Environmental pollution, heavy traffic, heat island effects and a reduction in usable public space per head of population are all issues the growing number of residents face. This has highlighted the need for multisectorial action to promote health in urban populations and has led to the rise of the ‘Healthy Cities’ movement (Kickbusch 1989; Flynn 1996). Interestingly, there are good opportunities for the community to contribute to creating a healthy and sustainable environment that will encourage residents to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Both international and national research supports the fact that changing the living environment—especially through urban green spaces—affects people’s living habits.

The social environment includes several dimensions that are known to influence participation in physical activity, including socio-economic status and equality. Socio-economic status tends to be inversely related to participation in leisure-time physical activity. This may be related to people with low incomes having less leisure time and less access to exercise facilities and green space (McNeill et al. 2006).

The category of workers in Hong Kong who have arguably the lowest income level en masse, and amongst those with the lowest level of permitted free time, are FDHs. These migrant worker groups are excluded from Hong Kong’s minimum wage law. The current minimum wage in Hong Kong is set at HK$34.5/hour. However the minimum allowable wage as of 2017 for domestic workers is a monthly salary of HK$4410. Assuming a 40-hour work week and a 160-hour month, this breaks down to just HK$25/hour, in a city where the cost of living ranks very high. Domestic workers often report working more than 40 hours per week, with 11 hours of work per day, six days per week not considered excessive. The low pay levels and the lack of regulation limiting the quantity of hours to be worked help to generate a high and seemingly perpetual demand for the employment of helpers in Hong Kong.

The immigration structure permitting the working arrangement and the relative lack of prosperity in surrounding countries create a labour market whereby the potential employees take a decision about the limited working opportunities with relatively low salaries within their home country and offer themselves for employment as helpers in Hong Kong in huge numbers. In 2017 there were 185,000 visa applications from FDHs in Hong Kong, which has a population of 7 million people, compared with 15,000 applications within the UK during the similar period, which has a population of 66 million.

With minimal funds, together with minimal or no private space within their domestic place of work, on their permitted weekly day of rest, these helpers tend to take to the local streets, parks and open spaces of Hong Kong Island en masse. Public spaces are free to use and easily accessible via Hong Kong’s low-cost public transportation system. Hence this user group of Hong Kong’s public space is one that is most affected by the economic and environmental impacts on public space within the city.

Meaning of Public Space in Hong Kong

In 1980 William Whyte argued that street life reflects the dynamics of urban spaces and that the vitality of the street can be invigorated by the quality of the surrounding open space, and vice versa. As the development value of available land in Hong Kong continues to grow, the use and protection of such open space has become an increasingly important and political aspect of urban life. Typically, public space includes parks, plazas, streets, sidewalks or any outdoor or indoor areas. In addition to public space, quasi-public spaces, open to the public but privately managed and sitting on privately owned land, are a common feature of most larger-scale residential and commercial developments.

A range of both public and quasi-public areas were studied in detail, with the work offering a foundation for the understanding of the spatial structure of Hong Kong. This understanding allowed us to observe both the quantity and the particular qualities of public space, how it is designed and for whom, and how it actually functions and is used, and by whom. A key observation is that there does not appear to be a particular grassroots movement in public space design and consideration within the city, particularly with respect to marginal groups. In the case of FDHs, every Sunday for the last 45 years, they have occupied public and quasi-public space on their rest days, whilst having had almost no say in the decision-making process influencing the arrangement of this space that impacts on their quality of life.

One need to observe the city only every Sunday to conclude with no doubt that this population, which in fact is a rolling group of individuals residing in the country temporarily with no voting rights, is creating a social and cultural landscape that has become a consistent and integral part of the city’s character. At what stage can this urban marginality have a chance to participate in the design and decision-making process for creating a city filled with better places that suit their needs? And if given the opportunity to participate, what would they campaign for? After 45 years of similar usage patterns, with a preference and recognizable pattern for small, sit-down gatherings with friends in centrally located public spaces, should they continue to need to resort to sitting on cardboard on the pavement? Or can these legitimate user groups be better provided for through an adaptation of public space design?

This reading of people and places can tell us something about the relationship between work, health, lifestyle and the environment, and the importance of policies and programmes that can support steps to address issues arising from these. As such, there may be a need, before redevelopment is scheduled, to obtain data of the existing physical and environmental condition. Urban climate information should be resolved and should not only be related to a local community’s comfort, health, human acceptance, but measure the full range of users’ needs and experience.

In urban design terms there are the tangible elements of the built environment that can be considered, such as the quality of street furniture, night-time street lighting, public toilets, and canopies or shelters to avoid the sun, rain and cold. In addition, and thinking more holistically about public health in the city, the intangible environmental characteristics of air pollution, noise pollution, heat island and other atmospheric conditions should also be considered.

The WHO advocates that ‘public areas are clean and pleasant, without heavy air pollution, and noise from cars and the environment’. Based on air quality index (AQI) measurements from AQI Hong Kong (, and in relation to its population density, Hong Kong has one of the poorest measurements in terms of air quality in the world. Currently in 2018, Hong Kong government plans to create the city as a leader in urban health that creates balanced socio-economic systems and improves our natural ecologies of landscape, water and wildlife (Figs. 2.1 and 2.2).
Fig. 2.1

Green Umbrella installation, showing its function and form, including climate and temperature sensors. (Source: Author)

Fig. 2.2

Formal and informal public spaces and walkway linkage between the Central and Wan Chai Districts of Hong Kong. (Source: Author)

Consider the following environmental data in detail: Hong Kong as a higher-density and more compact city conserved valuable land resources; however, in general, mega and high-density compact cities suffer from large conglomerates of urban land mass with high thermal capacity and urban heat island intensity (Oke 1973). In addition, the city has higher ground roughness and poorer urban ventilation (Landsberg 1981; Oke 1987).

High anthropogenic heat and pollution emissions are also problems under weak synoptic wind conditions (Taha 1997). High-density compact cities like Hong Kong, by their own urban morphological nature, have tall and bulky buildings, which lead to high frontal area density, high building-height-to-street-width ratio, restricted sky view factors and low solar access (Yamashita et al. 1986). They are also lacking in open and green spaces (Jim 2004).

This urban landscape creates an urban climate that affects human comfort and environmental health. For air temperature, monthly air temperature measurements of the Hong Kong Observatory, coupled with the human-biometeorological threshold of local inhabitants taken from user survey data, reveal that, in the months of May and September, daytime maximum air temperature can be highlighted as a problem.

As mentioned earlier, specifically, Hong Kong government planners have developed the 2030 strategic plan, and sustainability and city design have been mentioned in the working process. The areas of focus are ‘infrastructure capacities’ in terms of the environment, ‘quality living space’ in relation to the urban spaces and environment, ‘air quality’ in terms of emission and dispersion, and ‘waste management and energy consumption’ in relation to the resources management. Regardless of the parametric concerns of planning, the need to appreciate concerns in spatial design terms is ever present.

Considering these environmental and climatic factors and concerns, what can be an appropriate design response that could offer an improvement to the usage of open space?

Overall, the urban formulation in Hong Kong Island can be identified as three different layers:
  • Underground level, with pathways and mass transit railway (MTR).

  • Ground level, with traffic roads (cars and trams) and pedestrians but limited connectivity. This level is exposed to the outside environmental issues to use.

  • Above the ground level, with walkways from buildings to buildings and bridges to bridges (partially exposed to the outside climate issues and air pollution, partially enclosed or covered by trees and shelters to protect users from weather and air pollution).

Considering this urban formulation layout, the data collection included a survey of the density of usage of the most popular places of occupation for helpers during a period from September 2016 to January 2017.

Based on this outcome, three of the most popular areas for FDH gatherings in the Central district of Hong Kong have been assessed in relation to air pollution, wind levels and temperature in relation to the built form, where helpers are mainly gathered with huge number of population, to draw on the experiences of helpers in public space in Hong Kong in order to examine healthy environment and spaces of the city in detail. These three areas are Chater Road in Central District, a public space in front of the immigration building complex in Wan Chai and a sidewalk under the flyover between Victoria Park and Causeway Bay.

Environmental Analysis

Ladybug is an open-source plugin for Grasshopper and Rhinoceros, which help explore and evaluate environmental performance. Ladybug imports standard EnergyPlus weather files (EPW: EPW stands for EnergyPlus weather data [US Department of Energy]) into Grasshopper and provides a variety of 3D interactive graphics to support the decision-making process during the initial stages of design.

For the development of the environmental analysis, it has used the data available on the EnergyPlus web page for Hong Kong SAR (, including the EPW file and the STAT file (STAT stands for weather data summary report header), in order to perform several analyses that help to understand the weather condition in the selected public spaces of Hong Kong.

Radiation Analysis

Radiation is an important factor to consider in occupant thermal comfort and energy use of the buildings. To assess this a Radiation Rose analysis was done (radRose) in order to understand the maximum radiation and the direction of this radiation, allowing the direct and indirect radiation of the three public spaces studied to be measured (most-high-density public area in Hong Kong Island on Sunday) and also the amount of radiation that people are exposed to while using those public spaces. In this case, an analysis period of one day from 7:00 am to 19:00 pm on the summer solstice was chosen, which coincides with a typical week as per the STAT file analysis results, avoiding the typical hot week and typical cold week (Fig. 2.3).
Fig. 2.3

Heat radiation analysis. (Source: Author)

The results obtained from the radRose have been applied to a grid of 10 × 10 metres onto the different selected public spaces for the same time period, obtaining a coloured diagram of the maximum and minimum radiation valued in the area, using the surrounding buildings as a context environment and the street and open spaces as the object of the analysis (Figs. 2.4, 2.5 and 2.6).
Fig. 2.4

Heat radiation analysis of Gloucester Road Garden and surroundings. (Source: Author)

Fig. 2.5

Heat radiation analysis of Victoria Park and surroundings. (Source: Author)

Fig. 2.6

Heat radiation analysis of Chater Road and surroundings. (Source: Author)

Wind Rose

The wind rose is based on the wind direction and wind speed data gathered from the Hong Kong SAR EPW file, applying the information to the selected areas, taking into account the surrounding buildings as a context environment for the visualization of the main wind direction and speed in the studied area (Figs. 2.7, 2.8 and 2.9).
Fig. 2.7

Wind rose analysis in Chater Road, September 2016. (Source: Author)

Fig. 2.8

Wind rose analysis in Wan Chai, September 2016. (Source: Author)

Fig. 2.9

Wind rose analysis in Causeway Bay, September 2016. (Source: Author)

Sun Path

Sun-path analysis is most commonly shown as a stand-alone graphic. Ladybug creates an instance connection between the sun path and hourly weather data by allowing the user to overlay any desired hourly data on the sun path. The sun-path component provides the resultant sun vectors as an output; the sun vectors from the aforementioned analysis period (07:00 am 21/06 to 19:00 pm 21/06) are then used in further analysis (Fig. 2.10).
Fig. 2.10

Sun-path analysis in Chater Road, September 2016. (Source: Author)

Sunlight Hours Analysis

Sunlight hours analysis uses the resulting sun vectors obtained from the sun-path analysis in order to analyse the open spaces of the selected areas using the surrounding buildings as a context geometry and allowing us to visualize the numbers of hours of direct sunlight over a grid of 10 × 10 metres (Figs. 2.11 and 2.12).
Fig. 2.11

Sun-path analysis in Wan Chai, September 2016. (Source: Author)

Fig. 2.12

Sun-path analysis in Causeway Bay, September 2016. (Source: Author)

Urban Microclimate

A specific analysis about the urban microclimate for the open spaces in the selected areas has been conducted in order to analyse the users’ perceived temperature relative to the outdoor comfort values. Based on the context environment as described in the previous analysis, a grid of 10 × 10 metres has been established in order to perform the analysis, using the obtained radiance values, dry bulb temperature by EPW values, context shading and a 0.25 value for ground reflectivity, considering a dry base soil for a solar adjustment temperature. On the other hand, the comfort values have been selected taking into account a body posture of low-res (sitting) due to the fact that the majority of the activities performed on the open spaces by the Filipino community are performed in gathering areas. The clothing absorptivity has been set at a value of 0.7 as a default skin and average clothing. Lastly the outdoor comfort values take into account the EPW values for the mean radiant temperature, wind speed and relative Humidity. These three independent analyses, solar adjustment temperature, comfort values and outdoor comfort values, are processed by the Ladybug Add-on in order to visualize the universal thermal climate index (UTCI) for the selected areas’ outdoor environments (Figs. 2.13, 2.14 and 2.15).
Fig. 2.13

Urban microclimate analysis in Chater Road, September 2016. (Source: Author)

Fig. 2.14

Urban microclimate analysis in Wan Chai, September 2016. (Source: Author)

Fig. 2.15

Urban microclimate analysis in Causeway Bay, September 2016. (Source: Author)

In 2015 the City University of Hong Kong developed a new technology to assess air pollution and represent health risk categories and indices. The research aimed to allow the construction of small and robust monitoring packages at lower cost that may be placed in locations not covered by conventional monitoring. The new development allows monitoring schemes to be deployed that target special environmental exposure situations and community monitoring locations. At this scale, the city structure, land use parcels, development density, building heights, and non-building areas, as well as infrastructural routes of transportation defined and mapped, are measurable.


Since 2013, air quality is a major concern in Hong Kong (HK Environmental Bureau), and the government has started to undertake a number of initiatives to improve it. The principal contributors to air pollution in the city are motor vehicles, marine vessels, and power plants and industrial pollution in the wider Pearl River Delta. The two greatest challenges are local street-level pollution and regional smog. Diesel vehicles, particularly trucks, buses and light buses, are the main source of street-level pollution. In 2013 the Environment Bureau released ‘A Clean Air Plan for Hong Kong’, which sets out in detail the various measures to tackle air pollution from power plants, land and sea transport, and non-road mobile machinery and to strengthen collaboration with Guangdong to deal with regional pollution.

The Hong Kong government is taking measures to reduce this range of emissions. As of 2015, a comprehensive programme to reduce street-level pollution had lowered the roadside levels of nitrogen oxides, respirable suspended particulates and sulphur dioxide at urban roadsides, which dropped by 51%, 70% and 50%, respectively, compared with 1999. Hong Kong’s new Air Quality Objectives (AQOs), which are benchmarked against a combination of interim and ultimate targets under the WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines, took effect from 1 January 2014. It is a statutory requirement to conduct a review of the AQOs at least once every five years. To attain the new AQOs, the government has put forward a wide range of new air quality improvement measures. In addition, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and the Guangdong provincial government endorsed in November 2012 a new set of regional emission reduction targets/ranges for 2015 and 2020, respectively, with a view to improving regional air quality.

The Environmental Protection Department releases Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) information hourly to inform the public of the short-term health risk of air pollution in Hong Kong and helps the public take precautionary measures to protect their health.

A key finding from this can be that whilst the government is seeking to improve air quality, pollution is still a key factor affecting the ‘health’ of the open space of Hong Kong and the core user groups, including helpers who make regular use of it. Although there are other factors affecting the health of helpers, pollution is clearly a particular concern at the street level in most of the urban areas studied. To address this concern, public space design is key to providing more liveable and healthy places for all walks of life and for all permissible forms of usage.

The design challenges for improving our outdoor urban environments can be categorized as follows:
  1. 1.

    The form and function of the physical built environment of the urban spaces

  2. 2.

    The particular environmental qualities and hazards of particular urban spaces

  3. 3.

    How urban spaces can be accessed and fit within a sustainable social network

The health impact of adverse environmental conditions requires a systematic approach to assess and achieve a sustainable built environment considering the following elements (Choi 2012):
  • Location

  • Sustainable land use

  • Sustainable green public transportation systems

  • Energy saving within the building, using local resources and locally sourced construction

  • New approaches to sustainable built form (building typology with public open space) in order to maximize sunlight, heat, winds and air circulation

In addition, two findings in relation to soft tissues within the built environment need to be given value as part of a response to spatial assessment strategies within sustainable development:
  • The sustenance and evolution of local resources and values rooted in social and cultural aspects

  • An integrated understanding of both decision-makers’ and users’ needs in relation to cultural and social contexts

Design Strategy: A Green Umbrella for Hong Kong

As a design proposal in response to the environmental issues and the social landscape, our team created the ‘Green Umbrella’ to consider the environmental consequences of this mass movement, supporting the manner in which helpers assimilate the public space surrounding them to suit their own culture and form of gathering, involving dance, games, food, naps and political rallies. Along and below elevated walkways and highways, recycled cardboard is used to create temporary territories amongst the pedestrian flow and adjacent to busy roads. The Green Umbrella is a digitally sensing device that can provide alternative shelter and enclosure, together with a screen showing the level of air pollution measured with built-in CO2 sensors. This will allow users to identify the less polluted areas in the city where they can rest whilst highlighting the issue as a part of the social conscience of the city. The Green Umbrellas would also provide street lighting and form a significant new element of street furniture, with an emotional effect created by the juxtaposition of physical elements within the environment (Jones et al. 2007) (Figs. 2.16, 2.17a, 2.17b and 2.17c).
Fig. 2.16

Visualization of Green Umbrella installation and usage within Victoria Park. (Source: Author)

Fig. 2.17a

Design proposal for Green Umbrella installation. (Source: Author)

Fig. 2.17b

Design proposal for Green Umbrella installation and its potential impact on the streetscape of Central District. (Source: Author)

Fig. 2.17c

Design proposal for Green Umbrella installation and its potential impact on public space and landscaped area. (Source: Author)

As a new addition to the urban environment, this ‘Green Umbrella’ is symbolic as a metonymy (Choi 2011) in the built form ideology of Hong Kong Central. The term of metonymy relates to the contiguity between two concepts, whereas a metaphor works by the similarity between them. With regard to urban structure, a metonymy expresses relationships of juxtaposition among the components of urban design. For example, Frampton’s (1995) description of topography, climate, light and tectonic form, and the tactile sense, represents the role of metonymy in design ideology, adopting modern architecture critically for its universal qualities, but at the same time valuing local resources. For instance, environmental characteristics, including climate and topography, influence social life and users’ activities, thereby enhancing users’ attachment to the space and place.

In sum, public space sustainability is a dynamic and ongoing process, and this is what makes it interesting. Usage and functions of public space would change over time, as they are closely impacted by the developments and demands of our society.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hee Sun Choi
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Hong KongHong KongHong Kong

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