Walk21-XVII: Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Walking Puts People First
3 - 7 October, 2015
1. The Right to Walk
With 90% of journeys ridden on public transport, and the first and last miles of these journeys completed mostly by walking, Hong Kong is arguably one of the most walked cities in the world. But the activity measure alone does not necessarily mean it is walkable. One community based Walkability App from India gave Hong Kong a score of 70% for its walkability, better than many Asian cities (and other world ones too), but a local visually impaired person, Chanyau Chong, reminded us that ‘citizen’s must claim the right to walk first; facilities and assessments can then come later’.
The International Physical Activity and the Environment Network studies, shared at the conference, confirmed that investment in walkability DOES lead to more walking once this right has been established. As a visitor, the right in Hong Kong can feel somewhat eroded by the illogical and at times counter intuitive multilayered access corridors weaving under and above car traffic throughout the city. The reliance on developers to consistently deliver direct and accessible permeability has not always been successful and the right and need to walk not sufficiently safe guarded. That said, the walking network definitely feels safe and most accept the invitation to use it.
Partnerships in cities, between communities, governments and developers, need to confirm the right to walk as well as provide the facilities to make that right safe, accessible and attractive with meaningful connections.
2. The Value of Space
The new Global Street Design Guide Manual and International Measurement Standard for Walking give further clarity to understand how to evaluate our streets’ potential and steer investment to most effectively realise it. Compact, green and connected cities are a planning shorthand to successful places and inspiration can be taken from Stockholm’s vision to ‘double the space for walkers and half the space for cars’ to help achieve it. Hong Kong architect Rocco Yim reminded us ‘to make that space spiritually rewarding if we want it valued’.
3. Rail is a walker’s best friend
The MTR backbone that underpins movement in Hong Kong is the key to the city’s vibrancy. It is the efficient timetable that often makes it the envy of other cities but it is their investment in walkability that makes them effective. Uniquely, in Hong Kong, the MTR takes responsibility for the quality of their station proximity and community connectivity and the demand for its services. David Tang, the company’s Property Director, calls this the ‘value capture system’ noting that his long-term investment portfolio includes housing, parks, retail and access corridors (as well as stations and track) which collectively help him stitch a station into the city so that trips can be started and completed as conveniently as possible on foot. In Stockholm the MTR is investing in ensuring safe walkable environments to serve their customer base too.
4. Symbolic Change
Encouragingly, cities all over the world are taking confidence from the published evidence and transforming from car-centric to people centred places. Step change is best achieved from symbolic campaigns such as Krakow’s commitment to tackle pavement parking; Guangzhou’s green corridor programme, Seoul’s highway demolition; Berlin’s walking route network; Iloilo’s car-free routes; and Singapore’s road crossings for the elderly. The public have not always been the ones to articulate the project and can appear vocal against change at first, but in all cases the results have been celebrated and, most importantly, provided a foundation for further change.
Mayors, like in Paris, are increasingly adopting the principles of tactical urbanism with ‘walk-ready’ projects that improve their welcome. In Hong Kong, taking the traffic out of Des Voeux Road Central; committing to access around the Harbour; re-imagining poor public space with community initiatives like Very Hong Kong; and creating a network of iDiscover Walks in each district of the city are all quick wins, with public support, to symbolically demonstrate a commitment to an even better Hong Kong in the future.
5. Taking Responsibility
Walking happens most across communities when people’s hearts are won (through investment in the joy of walking to improve their emotional experience) and their minds are won with facts. New facts about the benefits of changing personal car habits has the potential to resonate more with individuals. Almost everywhere in the world, at least half of all car trips made are for distances of under 5km. If each of us were able to switch two of these journeys per week from the car to walking within two years we could reverse the accumulated negative impact that our car dependency over the last 40 years has had on our air, bodies and happiness.
We must not be distracted from this deliverable transformation however by the temporary hopes of electric cars and driverless vehicles. Clean congestion is still congestion and demands the same inefficient use of space to operate and park.
By taking responsibility for our trips at an individual level we can collectively re-imagine our cities and make better use of the stranded assets that we are currently spending so much money trying, often in vain, to make safer, more equitable and pleasant.