20 January 2019
City dwellers cannot stock up on emergency supplies if they live in a tiny sub-divided flat. Photo: Reuters
City dwellers cannot stock up on emergency supplies if they live in a tiny sub-divided flat. Photo: Reuters

HK’s vulnerability rises with high residential density

“Shoebox” private residential units are a growing trend in Hong Kong, with the latest project offering units as small as 60-odd square feet.

A cramped living space would not only fall short of meeting residents’ basic needs but would also fail to provide adequate shelter against hazards.

It increases people’s vulnerability.

According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, vulnerability is defined as the characteristics and circumstances of a community, system or asset that make it susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard.

There are many aspects of vulnerability arising from various physical, social, economic and environmental factors.

Examples include poor design and construction of buildings, inadequate protection of assets, lack of public information and awareness, limited official recognition of risks and preparedness measures, and disregard for wise environmental management.

Oxford University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong published a research article in June which investigates the rates and predictors of urban community disaster risk perception, awareness and preparedness.

The study comprised 1,002 respondents with a 63 percent response rate.

The majority of respondents (82.3 percent) did not perceive Hong Kong as a disaster-susceptible city.

Infectious disease outbreaks (72.4 percent), typhoons (12.6 percent) and fires (7.1 percent) were ranked as disasters that are most likely to occur.

In terms of individual disaster preparedness, only a quarter (26.1 percent) of respondents reported participation in training while nearly 60 percent (57.4 percent) reported ownership of non-perishable food and drinking water.

Ownership of a first aid kit (49.4 percent) and a fire extinguisher (11.5 percent) were less commonly reported by households.

On the software side, general public awareness and preparedness could be enhanced through education.

However, design and construction of micro apartments — the hardware aspect is scaling up Hong Kong’s vulnerability.

Many developed countries and cities have set up standards for minimum living space. On average, the actual figures are well above the borderline.

In Hong Kong, each public housing unit under the Housing Authority shall have no less than 75 square feet of internal floor area per person but no standard has been implemented for private residential units.

According to urban planning experts, the average living space per person in Hong Kong is about 150 sq. ft., one-third that of Taiwan and half that of Singapore.

Some sub-divided flat dwellers might endure in units less than 50 sq. ft. on average.

Even if residents are aware of the importance of preparing for emergencies, given the limited space, it would be unlikely that families have extra space for storing up supplies.

Without electricity and lifts in high-rise buildings, the transport of emergency aid to households would also be a challenge.

Even if only certain areas are affected, the number of people in need would be massive.

Meanwhile, cramped units with poor ventilation and with toilets next to open kitchens heighten the risk of infectious diseases.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 6.

Translation by Darlie Yiu with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Publications Manager at the Collaborating Centre for Oxford University and CUHK for Disaster and Medical Humanitarian Response (CCOUC)

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