Walkability and vitality? Nice idea but not round here
Hong Kong should be a walker’s paradise. It is compact and dense, with a large number of amenities concentrated in a very small space. Few errands require the use of a car, and in fact over 90 percent of daily journeys occur on public transportation.
Walk Score, a US-based website which calculates walkability based on the proximity and concentration of amenities in a neighborhood, gives much of urban Hong Kong scores of 70/100 or above. Moreover, Hong Kong has a vibrant street food and market culture, boasting areas with enough complexity and variety to keep people entertained for hours. Yet Hong Kongers do not seem to enjoy walking. Transportation planners have found that over half of all local walking trips are 5 minutes or less, and only about 5 percent are over 20 minutes.
Anyone who has walked through Hong Kong’s central shopping districts could tell you that the streets are usually congested, noisy, and steeped in traffic fumes. Pavements are narrow, and further cluttered by newsstands, signposts, rubbish bins, shop displays, wicker baskets, trolleys, goods pallets and other miscellaneous items stored by businesses which use the streets as loading bays, delivery routes and sales floors. The greenery is sparse, there are few places to sit down, and overhead shade is often absent – in a climate where the summer months alternate between blistering sunshine and torrential downpour.
Unfortunately, Hong Kong planners’ attempts over the years to impose order and efficiency on this chaos have created problems of a diametrically opposite nature, promoting sterility and monoculture in place of vitality and diversity. In urban centres, instead of focusing on making streets more pleasant for pedestrians, traffic engineers have sought to maximize traffic flow and minimize accidents through the liberal use of safety railings, footbridges and underpasses.
While extensive networks of pedestrian footbridges in busy commercial areas can make major commuter routes more efficient, when combined with vehicle-dominated road planning, the flexibility and permeability of the urban environment is reduced. Trying to walk a non-standard route through North Wanchai or Admiralty, still within the city’s central business district, is an exercise in frustration. Moreover, while footbridges are all very well for getting from A to B, as mono-functional spaces, they lack vibrancy and social activity.
In the new towns of the New Territories and major greenfield development sites, the preferred solution to congested streets has been to get rid of the street. Pedestrians are removed from the ground level altogether, and get channeled through a network of indoor shopping malls and elevated footbridges directly connected to public transportation hubs.
In these areas, the social function of streets has virtually died off. Should you find yourself walking outside for any reason, you will find discouragingly long blocks, blank cliff-like walls, fast-moving traffic, and inconvenient road crossings.
Pavements can be curiously disjointed – at Olympic, a new housing development area in West Kowloon, I once followed a marked pedestrian crossing onto a traffic island in the middle of a highway, only to realize that there was no way off on the other side.
While indoor spaces have advantages in terms of comfort and safety, they tend to be homogeneous and are not an adequate substitute for genuinely public space. Shopping malls are not venues for political demonstrations, unauthorized musical performances, impromptu chess games, or even sitting and chatting without first buying a drink in a café.