Walkability in Hong Kong

By Wu Wenxi

Table of Contents

1.    Introduction

2.    Policies Related to Walkability

3.    Walkability Prospects and Issues in Hong Kong

3.1.   Central District on Hong Kong Island

3.2.   Mong Kok on Kowloon Peninsula

3.3.   Residential Area in New Territories

4.    Education and Public Engagement

5.    Conclusion

6.    References

7.    Appendix

8.    About the Author

1.    Introduction

Walking is a major activity in most people’s urban experience. In response to the environmental challenges resulting from increased population density and overdependence on cars, the idea of walkability has been increasingly advocated in urban planning. The term ‘walkability’ can be defined as a measure of ‘the extent to which walking is readily available as a safe, connected, accessible and pleasant mode of transport’ (Albey, 2005, p. 2). The conditions of security, mobility, convenience, comfort, and enjoyment are widely recognised as core elements of what makes urban space walkable (Gehl, 2006; Katarzyna, Piotr, and Michal, 2017; Speck, 2012). On the level of social inclusiveness, walkability also relates to traveling experience of wheelchair users and other groups with mobility challenges (Lo, 2009).

Pedestrian activity has a wide range of benefits for the environment and people’s wellbeing. It allows more people to reach their destinations within walking distance, which reduces traffic congestion, noise, and air pollution. A proper amount of daily walking can lower many health risks induced by today’s sedentary lifestyle, including obesity, diabetes (Casagrande, 2009), and cardio-vascular diseases (Lovasi, 2006). It also has a positive impact on people’s mental health, such as reducing stress and maintaining cognitive levels for the elderly (Weuve et al., 2004). Moreover, walking has a ‘social and recreational value’ (Southworth, 2005, p. 246) by creating more opportunities for interpersonal interaction and outdoor leisure. 

The emphasis on walkability reflects a people-centred mentality in today’s urban planning. It challenges the previous focus on ‘high-speed routes’ and ‘car communication’ (Katarzyna et al., 2017, p. 224), which has compromised pedestrians’ usage of public space and caused problems for the environment and people’s lives. ‘Making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ is promulgated by the United Nations as Sustainable Development Goal 11. The goal targets emphasise raising the level of human wellbeing by ensuring safety, accessibility, connectivity, and social interaction for all people, and the promotion of walkability in the city can be one practical way to help achieve these targets.

According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat, 2016), Hong Kong has been leading the ‘cultural shift away from auto-dependency’ towards a sustainable mode of development ‘oriented to transit, walking and cycling’ (pp. 39-40). With 33% of its land allocated for streets, which is the highest in the world (UN-Habitat, 2013), pedestrian mobility is meaningful to the city’s long-term prosperity. This entry will introduce key policies and typical practices for walkability in Hong Kong and will contribute to the outreach of public education about the impact of this issue on the city’s overall sustainable development.

2.    Policies Related to Walkability

In Hong Kong strategic urban planning has a history of development since the 1970s. Before Hong Kong’s reunification with China, a series of governmental reports were produced. Those early plans had made significant recommendations on city zoning, accommodation for a dense population, and transportation networks. However, it was not until the issuance of the Territorial Development Strategy Reviewin 1996 that environmental factors were taken into serious consideration, shifting the guideline from the ‘land use-transport duo’ to a ‘land use-transport-environment trio’ (Planning Dept., 2007, p. 4).

In 2006, the Planning Department of the Hong Kong SAR Government embarked on a decennial study on strategic planning, Hong Kong 2030: Planning Vision and Strategy, with ‘sustainable development as its overarching goal’ (Planning Dept., 2007, p. 111). The study called attention to the importance of ‘the provision of comfortable, safe and interesting pedestrian environments’ (p. 28) and highlighted ‘reliance on walking and cycling for short distance travel’ (p. 113) as future directions. A key measure is to encourage mixed-use development, which integrates residential, commercial, and social usages in the area to shorten commute distance. Other measures include building weather-proof infrastructure and pedestrian-aid facilities (pp. 156-157).

A decade later, the Planning Department launched a follow-up study, Hong Kong 2030+: Towards a Planning Vision and Strategy Transcending 2030, scheduled to be completed in 2018. In a recent report, there are many recommendations focused on walkability, now regarded as ‘a key element for sustainable cities’ (Planning Dept. 2016, p. 21). Specifically, the government will continue endorsing mixed-used, integrated walkways to decrease motorised transport. The report recommends measures to remove intruding roadside structures, redesign unnecessary changes of routes, widen over-narrow streets, and add greenery and seating to make the pedestrian environment ‘safe, inviting, and accessible’ (pp. 21-22). The report also underlines walkability to suit the needs of different groups of people, such as vehicle-free paths for school children and barrier-free paths for the elderly and disabled (p. 27).

3.    Walkability Prospects and Issues in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is geographically divided into Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories, each of which shows different levels of walkability because of their unique landscape and ways of development. The following section will introduce the walking conditions in typical locations in these areas.

3.1.  Central District on Hong Kong Island

Central is the central business district of Hong Kong, located on Hong Kong Island. The area is characterised by numerous skyscrapers that carve the city’s modern skyline. On the reclaimed land towards the harbour, footbridges can easily take the pedestrians to plazas and waterfront promenades. Up towards Des Voeux Road Central and Queen’s Road Central, there are steep slopes and spiral lanes with a diversity of shops and good linkage to public transport. 

According to a study led by the non-profit public policy think tank Civic Exchange in 2012 (Ng et al., 2012), there is a challenge of crowdedness and conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles, yet the proximity to the MTR network as well as the northern and southern stretches of elevated walkways have resolved the problem to some extent. However, wayfinding and crossing at-grade are difficult in some places, and more greenery and seating are needed.

In 2016, the research group conducted another study that measured the level of walkability in Central between Connaught Road Central and Queen’s Road Central. The result shows that the area scored highly in terms of ‘accessibility and connectivity,’ ‘physical and visual permeability,’ ‘scale and density,’ ‘variety and diversity,’ and ‘transit and pedestrian friendliness’ (Ng et al., 2016, p. 34).  Problems include a shortage of public amenities such as seating and toilets, lack of attractions with local culture, and some safety issues. Overall, the level of walkability in Central is average (Ng et al., 2016). 

3.2.   Mong Kok on Kowloon Peninsula 

Mong Kok represents an old, busy, and dense urban market place. The streets are narrow with heavy traffic and a large population flow. There are numerous small shops and restaurants as well as some large shopping malls such as Langham Place and Argyle Centre. Streets with distinct local features such as Ladies Street and Temple Street have drawn visitors from all places. In the measurement of walkability, Mong Kok scored well in ‘scale and density’ and ‘variety and diversity’ (Ng et al., 2016, p. 35). 

What is lacking, however, is such aspects as safety, connectivity, streetscape, and public amenities. Although there are both underground and elevated walkways, pedestrians often have to take many detours, and these walkways are not clean and interesting to walk in. Some shop frontages are not properly managed, causing obstacles along the street-side and people congestion.  

There seems to be a long-standing ‘dilemma’ that has curbed walkability in Mong Kok, which is how ‘to control overcrowding without losing its charm’ (Ng et al., 2012, p. 82). The large flow of population and compact businesses keep the area alive while also resulting in over-crowdedness, unsightliness, and noise pollution for local residents. Therefore, the overall pedestrian environment in Mong Kok is poor (Ng et al., 2016). 

3.3.   Residential Areas in New Territories

The social and spatial conditions of the New Territories are quite different from the old areas of Hong Kong, and this area has received far less international attention. Cleared of busy markets or layered walkways, the New Territories is built with large-scale residential compounds that are home to around half of the city’s population (Population Census, 2011). Since the area’s urbanisation in the 1960s, the main concern of development has been about networks between residence and public transport. Streets are clearly separated from the vehicular lanes, which has increased the safety and efficiency of walking. 

Despite good connectivity to public transits, walking for social and recreational purposes is quite limited since there is almost no streetscape with small shops or restaurants for people to stroll along, and the cultural characteristics that give people a sense of belonging are rare. Although there are good neighbourhoods such as Upper Ngau Tau Kok, where people can enjoy some public open space with trees, playgrounds, and artworks, these facilities are only found inside residential compounds, cut off by walls from their surroundings, which tend to restrict variety of lifestyles and connection to different cultures (Tieben, 2016). 

4.    Education and Public Engagement

In the field of education for sustainable development (ESD), Vare and Scott (2007) have distinguished between two different but complementary approaches towards sustainable living. One is characterised by facilitating sustainable development by advised behaviours according to expert knowledge (ESD 1), and the other is by critical thinking that examines the feasibility of such knowledge (ESD 2). The combination of the two approaches, which can make ESD both informative and reflective, is manifest in the building process of a walkable city by the Hong Kong SAR Government, joined by many other participants.

The Planning Department has made the City Gallery a key venue for exchanging with the public the ideas in the planning of Hong Kong by thematic exhibitions and workshops. The City Gallery acts as an ‘educational platform’ that provides many programmes targeting at different levels of students and professionals. These include the ‘City Gallery Summer Planning Schools,’ which enrolled 280 primary and secondary school students as ‘city planners’ and invited young colleagues within the Department as tutors (Planning Dept., 2017, p. 83). Significantly, 43% of the group visits to the City Gallery during 2016 were organised by educational institutions (p. 77), and the Department has close ties with the academics for the development and evaluation of planning strategies (p. 73).

In the public sphere, a number of civic groups, such as Civic Exchange and Hong Kong Public Space Initiative, and Designing Hong Kong, have been engaged in improving walkability in the city. In 2015, these groups jointly advanced the proposal of building a bus-free, pedestrian area in Des Voeux Road Central to the Government, which later transformed into the Des Voeux Road Central Initiative. In January 2017, Walk DVRC Ltd. was established as an NGO to focus on vitalising the pedestrian experience in the area. They have been organising various events to enhance community education, which include exhibitions to promote innovative planning concepts and forums to gather different communities to share planning strategies (Walk DVRC Ltd., 2017).

It may be argued that the promotion of walkability in Hong Kong represents a successful combination of ESD 1 and ESD 2 by incorporating the transmission of walkability ideas with active engagement and contribution from diverse communities.

5.    Conclusion

Hong Kong has already achieved excellent connectivity and mobility in terms of public transport, and now the government’s attention has been directed towards improving the pedestrian environment. In Central, more public amenities and cultural displays are advised to be implemented. In Mong Kok, there is a need for wider pavements, reduction of detours, enhancement of sanitation, and better balance between new development and cultural preservation. In the New Territories, the human-oriented development mode should be strengthened and put into practice.

Besides the governmental work, public participation is indispensable. At the Walk21 Conference hosted by Civic Exchange in 2016, Secretary of Transport and Housing Mr. Cheung Bing-Leung stressed that the achievement of walkability must be supported by the citizens’ willingness to accept walking as a natural mode of commute (Yau and Siu, 2016). Therefore, policymakers, schools, businesses, and other social communities may continue working together to promote relevant educational programmes and activities to raise public awareness of the value of walkability on various levels.

6.    References

Albey, S. (2005). Walkability Scoping Paper. New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.levelofservice.com/walkability-research.pdf

Casagrande, S. S. (2009).Walkability, Healthy Food Availability and the Association with Obesity and Diabetes in Baltimore City, Maryland(PhD dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest.  

Gehl, J. (2006). New City Life(1sted.). Copenhagen: Danish Architectural Press.

Katarzyna, T., Piotr, C., & Michal, J. (2017). The Concept of a Walkable City as an Alternative Form of Urban Mobility. Scientific Journal of Silesian University of Technology. Series Transport, 95, 223-230. doi:10.20858/sjsutst.2017.95.20

Lo, R. H. (2009). Walkability: What Is It? Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability, 2(2), 145-166. doi:10.1080/17549170903092867

Lovasi, G. S. (2006). Neighborhood Walkability, Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Risk (PhD dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest.  

Ng, S., Lai, C., Liao, P., Lao, M., Lau, W., Govada, S., & Spruijt, W. (2016). Measuring and Improving Walkability in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Civic Exchange. 

Ng, S., Lau, W., Brown, F., Tam, E., Lao, M., & Booth, V. (2012). Walkable City, Living Streets. Hong Kong: Civic Exchange. 

Planning Department of the Hong Kong SAR Government (Planning Dept.). (2007). Hong Kong 2030: Planning Vision and Strategy. Hong Kong: Planning Department HKSARG. 

Planning Department of the Hong Kong SAR Government (Planning Dept.). (2016). Planning and Urban Design for a Livable High-density City. Hong Kong: Planning Department HKSARG. 

Planning Department of the Hong Kong SAR Government (Planning Dept.). (2017). Annual Report 2017. Hong Kong: Planning Department HKSARG. 

Population Census. (2011). Hong Kong: Census and Statistics Department HKSARG. Retrieved from http://www.census2011.gov.hk/en/district-profiles/dcd-nt.html

Southworth, M. (2005). Designing the Walkable City. Journal of Urban Planning and Development, 131(4), 246-257. doi: 10.1061/(ASCE)0733-9488(2005)131:4(246)

Speck, J. (2012). Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time(1sted.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Tieben, H. (2016). Public Space Trends in Hong Kong. A View from the New Territories. The Journal of Public Space, 1(1), 25-34. doi:10.5204/jps.v1i1.7

United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). (2013). Streets as Public Spaces and Drivers of Urban Prosperity. Nairobi: UN-Habitat. 

United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). (2016). Urbanization and Development: Emerging Futures. Nairobi: UN-Habitat. 

Vare, P., & Scott, W. (2007). Learning for a Change: Exploring the Relationship Between Education and Sustainable Development. Journal of Education for Sustainable Development, 1(2), 191-198. doi:10.1177/097340820700100209 

Walk DVRC Ltd. (2017).Walk DVRC. Hong Kong: Walk DVRC Ltd. Retrieved from http://www.walkdvrc.hk/upload/files/research/20170916141004_65.pdf

Weuve, J., Kang, J. H., Manson, J. E., Breteler, M. M. B., Ware, J. H., & Grodstein, F. (2004). Physical Activity, Including Walking, and Cognitive Function in Older Women. JAMA, 292(12), 1454-1461. doi:10.1001/jama.292.12.1454

Yau, C., and Siu, P. (2016, October 3). Walk the Talk, Hong Kong Transport Minister Urges Conference on City Walkability. South China Morning Post.

About the Author

Wu Wenxi

MEd, The University of Hong Kong

Email: wenxiwu@outlook.com