Hong Kong: Is the Pearl of the East Really the World’s Most Densely Populated City?

Reality Check

When it comes to population density, Manila, Mumbai, and Mexico City far outpace Hong Kong. Even New York and Paris leave Hong Kong in the dust. So where does its reputation as the world’s most crowded city  come from?

Despite its reputation as being one of the world’s most crowded cities, Hong Kong also has a vast countryside, numerous uninhabited islands, and more than its fair share of protected country parks.

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on earth, coming in 4th after  Macau, Monaco, and Singapore.

Hong Kong’s terrestrial population density stood at 6,571 persons per square kilometer, or 17,019 per square mile, in 2012.

Compare those figures with the United States, the world’s 182nd most densely populated spot, where there are fewer than 33 persons per square kilometer.

Or Canada … With fewer than 4 persons per square kilometer, Canada is the world’s 230th most densely populated country.

Or Australia … With just over 3 persons per square kilometer, Australia comes in 236th of the 243 sovereign states and self-governing dependent territories listed by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Skewed Statistics

These comparisons, of course, are a bit skewed because Hong Kong is a city rather than a country.

If you compared Hong Kong with the world’s largest cities, the former British Crown Colony would not even make the top 10 list of the world’s most densely populated cities.

It wouldn’t even make the top 20 list of the world’s most densely populated cities. Nor the top 30 list …

There are least 35 cities in the world with higher population densities than Hong Kong!

With a population of 8.5 million against Hong Kong’s 7.2 million, New York City measures 1,214 square kilometers, vs. Hong Kong’s 1,092, and its population density is 10,756 per square meters, against Hong Kong’s 6,571.

What gives Hong Kong its reputation as a densely populated place is that the overwhelming majority of its population lives in high rise buildings, which are closely packed into relatively small parts of the territory’s total land mass.

The population of its most crowded district, Kwun Tong, where I lived before moving to the countryside 19 years ago, is a breathtaking 56,680 persons per square kilometer.

North District, where I have lived ever since, has a population density of just 2,220 persons per kilometer, the lowest in Hong Kong with the exception of the outlying islands.

Other factors include the narrow roads and narrow sidewalks, known locally as pavements, which create a crowded appearance.

Unspoiled Countryside

About three-fourths of Hong Kong’s land mass is, in fact, countryside, with sandy beaches, verdant forests, rolling hills, mountain ranges with soaring peaks, and more than 250 islands, most of which are not inhabited.

Fully 400 square kilometers of Hong Kong’s land mass comprise 24 country parks and 22 “special areas”, which together account of 38% of the land in Hong Kong.

These rural areas are crisscrossed by cycling tracks, footpaths, and 4 long-distance hiking trails, the longest of which, the MacLehose Trail, is fully 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, in length, stretching from Sai Kung, in the Eastern New Territories, to Tuen Mun, in the Western New Territories.

Nearly one-third of the population in Hong Kong lives in public housing estates, close to one-fifth lives in subsidized housing, and about one-half lives in private housing, which the inhabitants either own or rent.

While most of the housing in Hong Kong is high-rise, usually of at least 40 stories, there are exceptions.

Low rise apartment buildings, condominiums, and  even a few private homes can be found in the ritzier parts of Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Tong, the outlying islands, and the New Territories.

In terms of the distribution of the population, about 18% lives on Hong Kong Island, 30% lives on the Kowloon Peninsula, and 52% lives in the New Territories, which includes the outlying islands.

Villages People

Several decades ago, the New Territories comprised farmland, market towns, and traditional villages, many of them walled.

High-rise suburban communities – with both public and private housing – have proliferated in recent decades, often surrounding train stations.

Many people also live in 3-storey village houses. Male descendants of villagers living in the New Territories before the district was leased to Britain in 1898 are allowed to build such structures in their ancestral villages.

Interestingly, each one is the same size: 700 square feet and 3 storeys. Not by choice, it’s the law.

The original idea was to preserve the traditional Chinese family, with 3 generations living under one roof. In actual practice, however, these 3 storey structures are usually divided into 3 flats.

I should know! I live in the top floor of one such structure, which is located in a traditional village on the outshirts of Sheung Shui in the Northern New Territories!

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