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Lessons from Hong Kong:

Designing Child Friendly Neighbourhoods  

Rooftop playground, Hong Kong (Nikon Fm3

Image: Child playing on a rooftop in Hong Kong. Photo by Ransom Riggs

Being one of the most densely populated cities in the world, Hong Kong has spatial challenges unlike many other places. In districts such as Mong Kok, the population density soars as high as 120,000 people per square km. Space is highly sought after, and every square meter is maximised to its full value. Hong Kong was the second stop on my Churchill Fellowship journey, exploring high-density, child friendly environments and one which raised questions about spatial rights and the value of open public space. I was warmly welcomed by the University of Hong Kong, Playright advocates and many other institutions who generously shared their knowledge, struggles and successes in creating a child-friendly Hong Kong. Below are three key learnings from this trip.

1. Play as a right, not a luxury

In a city where the cost of land is so valuable, it is easy to forget that space for children’s play is a right, not a luxury. Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child notes that all children have a right to “rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age”. But without minimum standards for the provision of play space by private developers, facilities for children are often omitted. Research has shown that each Hong Kong child has on average 0.27 sqm of play space and unsurprisingly, this isn’t spread equally across the city. Children from the most disadvantaged communities often have the least amount of opportunities for play. Without considered standards regulating the provision and equal distribution of play space, play becomes an activity for children who are either lucky enough to live nearby to a public park or have parents wealthy enough to provide access to paid play-centres. This is of course not an issue unique to Hong Kong, as many cities including in Australia and the UK are currently grappling with this topic. 

When I asked the executive director of advocacy group Playright, Kathy Wong, what she thought was the biggest challenge for children’s play, she said "shifting mindsets". A stark reminder that as adults we have the responsibility to value play as a human right and in turn ensure that space is allocated to the needs of all children, not just those who have parents wealthy enough to pay for the luxury.

Watch Playright's video here about children's right to play:

2. Space for playful creativity


Emphasis on space for the more physical types of play is often what comes to mind when we talk about play-spaces. But when space is limited, particularly inside the home, areas for creative and passive play are also vital. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to visit one example of a creative play space, called the Play Depot in the area of Ma Tau Kok in Hong Kong. The Play Depot is an inspiring and innovative space which encourages communities to come together to play and share. The space seeks to explore the connections between ‘art’ and ‘play’ by engaging artists to undertake 11-week residences where they discover new ways to connect with the community through playful interventions and engagements. Children are encouraged to come whenever they please to create, explore and innovate. Using recycled materials sought from the community, both children and adults are welcome to use the space at no cost. 


When I visited the centre and spoke with founder Alex Tam, there was an elderly man outside making a timber chair. Alex explained that ’Uncle Leung' visits the centre every day, to create various objects. This time he observed that the children had nowhere to rest after they played, and so he decided to spend the next few weeks creating hand-make timber lounge chairs for the children. As a retired engineer, he provided the children the opportunity to learn the craft of making and the skill of patience. The Playdepot is a brilliant example of a communal hub within a high density area where children can return daily to work on projects and meaningfully engage with the community around them. 

3. Teaching the value of good design  


I had the privilege of joining Vicky Chan, founder of Avoid Obvious Architects to his weekly sessions at the local primary school. Here he runs a class with students aged 10-12, exploring what makes a great city and widening children’s views and understanding of their own neighbourhoods and physical environments. As Vicky said “If we want to create sustainable cities, we should start with children, not adults. If you give children the opportunity to explore what a future city should be like, surely that is a great investment into a sustainable future”.


During the class, children had the opportunity to pick a site from their local neighbourhood and add value with a new intervention. This included adding a library to the zoo, an eco-centre in the forest and water-play to the workplaces. Through the classes the students start to understand their local neighbourhoods and engage with what makes their city liveable. They also start to question why certain environments are less desirable and importantly how these can be improved. I agree with Alex, that engaging with children in a meaningful way about the built environment is a sure investment into a sustainable future. By providing the skills to children to identify the impacts which our built environment can have on sustainability and on our health, they become future citizens and leaders who value good design decisions for positive impact. 

As many of those who I interviewed noted, adult mindsets and low-value placed on children’s play, are often key barriers which prevent neighbourhoods from being more child-friendly. A key challenge in creating neighbourhoods where children can thrive is to firstly recognise the importance for children to be active members of their communities, through play, mobility and social opportunities. As I journey onto Tokyo, I hope to further uncover how shifting perceptions can free these limitations.


Author: Natalia Krysiak

Natalia is currently undertaking an Churchill Fellowship exploring best practice for designing high density, child friendly neighbourhoods. Through an 8 week period she will travel to Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Toronto and Vancouver. Stay up to date with her travels on twitter or instagram.

#citiesforplay #childfriendlycities

For the previous chapter, ‘Lessons from Singapore’ please visit the link below:

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