Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Mine's bigger than yours

Since 2009 I have been living with the uncomfortable knowledge that Australians build the world's largest new dwellings. The typical size of a new Australian home hit 215 square meters that year, while the Danes were building the largest houses in Europe at 137 square meters, and the British stoically made do with an average 76m2.  And even that comparison masked the more frightening statistic, that the average size of a new free standing house in Sydney, referred to predictably as a MacMansion, was coming in at 263 square meters, or more than 100m2 per occupant.

So it is doubly sobering to be pointed at a site that documents the living conditions of some residents of Kong Kong.  As reported in DETAILdaily yesterday, a Hong Kong Chinese human rights organisation, the “Society for Community Organisation” (SoCO), commissioned a series of photographs of overcrowded living spaces in the city.  The photographic commission was in response to a piece that appeared in the Economist, which in 2012 rated Hong Kong as the world’s most liveable city. SoCO point out that the article did not appear to consider the plight of around 100,000 people living in just 4 square metres in what are known as “cubicle apartments”, created by subdividing already small apartments into multiple rooms.

I've only just returned from a quick working trip to India, where you still only have to scratch the surface of the newly clean metropolises of Mumbai or Chennai to discover the now less visible urban poor, for whom 4m2 of actual shelter would be paradise.  

So everything is relative.  But that shouldn't deter one from being outraged both at the unsustainable material profligacy of the developed world as represented by Australia's MacMansions, nor forgive the social unsustainability of the developed world, if its general well being still relies on some of its citizens having to do with so little.  

For more images of the cubicle apartments, go to the article in DETAILdaily here.


Chung Hang Fung said...

Haha, I am so familiar with those "Cubicle Apartments" photos as I am a oversea student from Hong Kong. There is really a big contrast comparing with the living condition between Australia and Hong Kong. Although the size of the living spaces in Hong Kong is extremely small, I don't surprised that Hong Kong was rated as the most liveable city in the world.

Living in a small and crowded apartment surely affects the living quality when you are INSIDE the apartment. However, it also makes the city more compact and convenient, which somehow encourages people to GO OUT to hang out with friends and family (or stay in the office and work a bit longer maybe, haha). It is not only enriching people's life but also boosting the economy in some ways. I've been living in Hong Kong for more than 19 years and after studying in Australia for 2 years, I don't find there's much connection between the size of the living spaces and the quality of life.

Anonymous said...

I am also familiar with living in tight apartments in Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. The smallest one was in Shanghai of only 20square meters where 2-3 people were living at a time where the largest in Sydney I have lived in was 280 square meters.
I believe that these “Cubical Apartments” have a positive and negative effect on the economy, societies and wellbeing people living in these countries. Clearly the densely populated urban cities have a boosted their economy compared to the slower Australian economy, as there is high demand in these modern cosmopolitan cities. In Asia, Real Estate nearly always comes at a premium as land and space is not as available as Australia. This means that HK’s only housing option is to go up versus Australia, where we are able to spread wide. This does mean that we are building in a more unsustainable manner compared to a country like Hong Kong.
However having some experience living in a tight apartment, it does come with some negatives if you are not raised in that environment from day one. The spaces are so tight, the whole family is working on top of each other; studying where someone is eating where someone is watching TV where someone is cleaning. This does affect quality family and friends time, which forces you onto the street to gather and meet. There is no sense of amenity spaces within a home, where you can enjoy natural light and airy spaces. Of course there are handful of housing developments which have been renovated or designed in such a way which resolves this. Where as in Australia you are able to open up onto a terrace, balcony view or pool, where you are flooded with breeze, light and sun. This does have a invisible effect on the happiness of a person. The Australian lifestyle is generally more relaxed and carefree where as people in Asia constantly feel the pressure of others, time and commitments. This pressure is drilled right into children from you with child suicidal rates increasing. This is due to the pressure in performance in school, work and future. In Australia this is hardly even a problem and maybe this is because of the way we live, the spaces we are able to enjoy which brings a deeper emotional connection with family, what is real and true happiness. Over time these tight living spaces have developed names like “dog boxes”, “new slums”, “pigeon cage” or “shoe box’. Do these names suggest ideal living standards of happiness, health and wellbeing?
Australia could be taking it too far with 215 square meters but maybe the question should be raise: other countries might also be taking it too far, going so compact to feel you are living in a “cage”. There is a balance there somewhere for everyone, depending on what you desire and aspire for.

Chung Hang Fung said...

Just to share. There probably was the highest population density in the world.

Gilbert said...

It is shocking to know that a new free standing houses in Sydney is still so large, which means that in order to find more spaces for larger dwellings in the future, they will have to build farther and farther away from the central business districts, creating an urban sprawl. The state government seems to try to get away from this MacMansions trend by developing higher density blocks in its urban areas. Lately, I received a newsletter from our local councilor, addressing this master planning issues and urging local residents to oppose to them, saying that may affect the quality of life. But I do doubt that, as having larger homes amongst does not necessarily mean we will have a better quality of life. Traffic jams will be more miserable as more and more cars will be on the road due to the fact that everyone is living so scattered. Energy prices may go up as it takes more effort to transfer electricity and gas to every household.

Some may suggest that the quality of life will certainly be poor if one is being packed into a tiny space every day, like the ones in South Asian Countries, but I’m actually more concerned about the hazards hidden in these overcrowded spaces. Those photographs commissioned by SoCO remind me of fire accidents involving “cubicle apartments” in Hong Kong a few years ago, killing quite a number of people. Subdividing apartments into smaller multiple rooms often results in blocking fire stairs and corridors. In case of fire, people cannot exit the building and are trapped inside the building as a result, leading to serious casualties. These accidents shocked the community as people are unaware of such conditions most of the time. The Hong Kong government is trying its best to build more affordable public housing so that they can get its citizens away from the “cubicle apartments”.

Witnessing university students in Sydney sharing small residential flats and seeing how tiny the student accommodation on campus is (especially UNSW), I am starting to think that Sydneysiders won’t be to foreign to the dramatic pictures of SoCO in the future. And I always wonder, are some of us going too far? Pushing up the density is not a bad idea, but we will have to put much effort into maintaining a fine balance between optimum density and overcrowding.

Shenghong Chen said...

Living condition is relative to human right and I think it depends on varies of issue,such as historical, cultural and social problems. In my opinion, the way of thinking between Western and Eastern people is different. More precisely, I have been studied about Australian Icons in foundation studies, and there is a passage in my textbook talks about the size of Australian house. If I am right, I remember every single family have a dreaming about" quarter acre" house.My first reaction is how it can be this large, but when I calm down and think deeply,I think it is reasonable. Do not forget, Australian occupies a whole continent with only 22 millions people living on 8 million kilo sqm area. But compare to Hong Kong, Hong Kong is a typical megacity, but it has only 1014 kilo sqm area. Hong Kong is consist of lots island, so the utility of land use is limited.The population in HK is nearly 8 millions which is 2/5 of Australia population. The land price depends on demand and supply, every year the new housing can only supply a certain group people, but not too much. I have viewed a series photo about super high buildings in Hong Kong. The land price, the limited supply and the poverty are the reasons that result the cubic apartments mentioned in your blog. Hong Kong has the highest retail rentals in the world, but not everyone can afford this rental.
Nevertheless, cultural diversity is another factor. In English System,the land is belonged to private buyers, but such in China or part of Hong Kong, the condition of land is belonged to government, which means you can only use or rent it whin in limited timeline, but you can not own this land forever.In Australian, Torrens Title ensures that privates own land properties.In Hong Kong, tenement house is a typical housing type in 1960s, it combines western and chinese architectural features and normally with 4 or 5 storey high, those old building are old but they are cheap to unemployable people or poors. I thing Hong Kong government is already realizing this issues and they are start to establish more public apartment to their citizens.

Estefania Beristain said...

I might not be truly familiar with the “Cubicle Apartments”, or the “Sydney McMansion” but as an exchange student I think that it would be interesting to contrast this two living conditions with the “social housing” of my country, Mexico. I would like to invite you use the favourite searching engine, google, and look for images of social housing of this tree places just to have an idea of the common layout of this particular dwelling. To make my comparison more clear, I will also like to refer this comment to the Sustainability and the Suburbs post.

First of all, congratulations to Australian cities for being in the top ten most liveable cities over the last years, unfortunately there is not yet a rating for 2014, however other source (Mercer) shows that Sydney continues in the top numbers. Sadly Mexico City is at the bottom of the North American cities; and -not sure if it’s bad or good- Hong Kong is neither in the best or worst top 5 liveable cities in Asia.

What is quality living? 48.2% of the Mexican typical houses have no more than 75 m2 and 21.9% are above 100 m2 (Sánchez 2010); compared to “Cubicle Apartments”, social housing in Mexico is quite better in terms of space. Nevertheless it is far from McMansions dimensions and good quality is not the best word to describe them. Families have to share small dwellings and public spaces don’t offer the most pleasant areas to hang out, consequently social discontent is faced. Though the main problem seems to be that the houses don’t have enough isolation from each other and you end hearing everything that your neighbours talk about. In spite of it, Mexican people apparently can handle it and in the end of the day communities seem to be happy even without first world facilities.

In the case of Mexico, the urban sprawl–not 100% of the cases but indeed quite a great percentage- exemplifies the point that wanted to picture Nelson in his article. Though different cultural and economic backgrounds are lived, the urban sprawl in Mexico is a mix of the richest people in the cities and the poor segment.

The problem with this phenomenon emerged around the year 2000 lead by the new “Government of The Change”. So as to cut this tail, the program looked to provide the low income population segment with a new home. Yet despite that there were built around 20,000 thousand houses, they did not meet the needs of users and currently are mostly abandoned. Millions of hectares -do not have the exact numbers, but just to make the point- were built relatively far from the city centres and no effective connections –in human and car scales- where created. Hence, the urban sprawl exist and it is not sustainable, at least and sadly for my loved country.

In the bright side, in the last years there have been made some improvements in different cities -Puebla and Celaya city are good examples-, creating better connections of their suburbs and the city centre, or creating-reinforcing sustainable programs to give a better quality life in the suburbs and city centre.

I totally agree that the urban sprawl is the product of deficient planning, all generally guided by ignorance and political motives. Obviously the engine motors and outcomes depend on the cultural background but if there exist the possibility of providing the user of quality living without enlarging the urban sprawl, I think it’s more sustainable to build up than expanding our print, it is expensive and damage the ecosystem. Let’s hope that Mexican development programs become more sustainable and strict, in order to give the social housing a more dignified approach.

• Mercer Survey. 2014 Quality of Living Worldwide City Rankings. Mercer. 19.02.2014.
• Sánchez Corral, Javier. Vivienda Social. Factores que influyen en la producción de vivienda en México. Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte Emisión 2008. 2010.
• Aguilar Juárez, David. Vivienda, el sector triunfador del sexenio. El Universal. 26.12.2006.