Broadening our view of the effects of air pollution within a growing field of Urban Political Ecology, we can consider how air quality physically shapes the built environment. With a knowledge of the microclimates which differentiate pollution levels around the city, we can even begin to see Hong Kong’s famous skyline as an indirect product of pollution, a manifestation of air’s role in ‘remaking urban environments’ (Véron, 2008, 2093).
As we have explored, pollutants are often concentrated at street level, in what Wong, Ng and Yau have described as ‘street canyons’, which cause pollutants to be ‘trapped in the bottom 15m’ (2012: 14, in Graham, 2015: 204). An obvious response to this vertical stratification of pollutants is to build upwards. With 355 buildings more than 150m tall, Hong Kong is ranked as the world’s most high-rise city. Whilst vertical urbanism is certainly a product of high population density in the Special Administrative Region, the upward climb also represents an escape from the smog below, with the creation of ‘airy refuges’ (Graham, 2015: 202).
As Tim Choy argues, the strategy is to build ‘into the air, and out of it’ (Graham, 2015, 203). But the option to live on higher floors comes at a premium, and in a city with the highest rental prices on earth, housing costs could even represent ‘indirect and partial commoditisation of air quality via property values’ (Vèron, 2005: 2096). This phenomenon is also tangible in the luxury properties lining the waterfront of Victoria Harbour, where wind helps disperse pollutants. Ascending up towards the Peak on Hong Kong Island, the Mid-levels is another popular refuge, explicitly recommended by the ‘Expat Essentials’ webpage for its ‘relatively unpolluted’ air. The ability of wealthier expatriates to escape pollution gives a new resonance to Graham’s terminology of a ‘colonisation… of vertical space’ (2015: 203). Thus, income inequality may be paired with privileges bestowed upon a residual post-1997 handover colonial class, in a striking manifestation of how ‘the impacts of toxic (air)’ are ‘distributed extremely unevenly and unjustly’ (Graham, 2015: 202).
The proliferation of air conditioning across the city is an extension of such dynamics. Apartments and offices are sealed off from the polluted outside air in perpetually-cooled isolated capsules in which ‘air is deliberately manufactured and conditioned’ (Graham, 2015: 205). Whilst walking around Kowloon on a visit several years ago, my friend guided our route to the waterfront to ensure we could walk through air-conditioned shopping malls most of the way. Malls an offices can be so cold that it is even advisable to bring an ‘indoor jacket’ to keep warm. Even in winter, the air-conditioners whir on, and during heatwaves AC units exacerbate temperatures, ‘dump(ing)’ heat ‘beyond the walls’ (2015: 205), creating a vicious cycle. Adding insult to injury, lowly pedestrians on the street often have to dodge the constant dripping of water from malfunctioning units above, which creates a micro-weather of patchy rain. Seeing it as her ‘civic duty’, resident expatriate Mary Mulvihill has campaigned for years to fix the problem, pestering local authorities but so far with limited success.
Hong Kong’s air pollution is unevenly distributed on a variety of scales. The stratification of air quality mimics a social stratification, and in a city seen as a bastion of capitalism, the city manifests Véron’s description of ‘an indirect market for air quality’, as a supposedly ‘open-access’ resource becomes a commodity.
Graham, S., 2015, ‘Life Support: The political ecology of urban air’, City, 19:2-3,192-215
Véron, R., 2006, ‘Remaking urban environments: the political ecology of air pollution in Delhi’, Environment and Planning A, vol. 38, 2093-2109
Feature Image: Lai Ching Yuen, Alami Stock Photo: https://theculturetrip.com/asia/china/hong-kong/articles/the-10-best-bars-in-mong-kok-hong-kong/
Looking down on the smog from the Mid-levels, Savills: https://www.savills.com.hk/resources-hub/district-guide/hong-kong-island/mid-levels-west.aspx
AC Units, Cooling Post: https://www.coolingpost.com/world-news/dripping-air-conditioners-a-problem-in-hk/