HK: The Great Indoors

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).

Looking down on the smog from the Mid-levels – Savills

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).

AC Units – Cooling Post

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.   

An expat takes on the dripping – SCMP

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:

Looking down on the smog from the Mid-levels, Savills:

AC Units, Cooling Post:

3 thoughts on “HK: The Great Indoors

  1. I think the issues around privilege / wealth and access to clean air you raise are really interesting, with the commoditisation of air quality in house prices. The problem of ‘dripping air-cons’ is something I have never come across before, but again contributes to the way in which the rich manufacture their air at the expense of those below them. I look forward to reading more about HK!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, thank you for this fascinating post! I believe it’s a worldwide phenomenon that the levels of exposure to air pollution and the socioeconomic status of a population correlate in the way we notice in HK. So it’s exciting to delve into this environmental injustice. I think in the HK case, it would be interesting as well to look into the relation between socioeconomic status and exposure to noise levels. I believe that groups of high socioeconomic status are also escaping high noise levels from street level. Lower socioeconomic groups are probably exposed to further environmental injustices in the form of high noise levels that lead to health consequences like stress, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases and sleep disorders.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s a really interesting point you raise about expanding investigations of pollution to include noise pollution. When I was working in Hong Kong several years ago, I stayed in a relatively low build-quality apartment block which faced onto Kowloon’s busiest traffic thoroughfare – Nathan road. Nathan Road is notorious for pollution, and the bustle of the street below made it really hard to sleep, even from my apartment on the fifth floor. Even though I was in a position of relative privelege, and the apartment was definitely livable, I have no doubt the the housing prices directly along the main road would have been cheaper. What is interesting in the Yau Ma Tei/Jordan neighbourhood I was in is that the higher quality middle class apartment buildings are often set back from Nathan Road, mostly several blocks to the West. Further to the west, there is a new shopping mall at the flagship International Commerce Centre, and the air-conditioned shopping mall acts as a podium for numerous luxury residential towers, as well as Hong Kong’s tallest building: the 118 floor ICC, which contains offices as well as one of the city’s most expensive hotels. It’s clear that in more than one way the rich in Hong Kong have the means to escape pollution, be that in the form of air or noise.


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