Urban planning

The tunnel vision of pedestrian planning

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2008, 12:00am


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We tend to take pavements for granted as we walk around Hong Kong but some are getting narrower or are fast disappearing as elevated walkways replace ground-level pedestrian thoroughfares.

The labyrinth of footbridges insulates pedestrians from the teeming street life we have come to enjoy.

We are used to rubbing shoulders with strangers when we cross the street. We stop and chat with acquaintances or window shop. But now urban planners and others concerned about public space in Hong Kong warn that pavements are on the way out. They say that ground-level road crossings and pavements are disappearing fast - especially in the central business district.

Pedestrians are now being channeled through footbridges and subterranean tunnels, and are being driven off the streets through more efficient conduits, because as building density increases pavements can no longer handle the flow. In some cases, new office buildings are being designed without easily accessible street-level entrances but with elevated walkways leading in to first-floor entrances.

Disembarking from the ferry at Central piers now leads people on to a footbridge that feeds Two IFC and connects to a maze of walkways throughout Central. It is becoming increasingly difficult to get from the piers to the General Post Office or Jardine House by pavement.

'This concept is becoming the main design and it is short-sighted,' said Paul Zimmerman, founder of Designing Hong Kong, a non-profit group dedicated to improving the city's built environment. 'Our pavements are important public space.'

Concerns over disappearing pavements, crossings and other forms of public space have been raised during public discussions on urban planning in recent months. A panel of architects, planners and activists convened at the Fringe Club during the City Festival in January to discuss the dominance of footbridges over pavements in some parts of the city and their impact on the cityscape.

Some speakers at a March urban design symposium sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and the Urban Land Institute, an international think-tank on urban development issues, questioned the design of footbridge-linked structures in newly redeveloped districts, such as West Kowloon.

Recent revelations that the Times Square developer leased designated public space at the mall's entrance continue to stir public awareness. Public discussion over access to the waterfront promenade at the Tamar site also continues.

But even as waterfront green space is being planned and privately managed plazas are being returned to the public, planners say there should be no further ceding of pavement space. Super-blocks linked by a network of elevated walkways simply do not cut it.

'Basically people look at footbridges as an easier way of navigating the heavily trafficked areas,' said Sujata Govada, who leads the urban design committee of the American Institute of Architects' Hong Kong chapter.

'The ground-level connectivity and activity is disappearing as a result of these podium blocks that are getting bigger, eating away at the city's urban fabric.'

According to the Planning Department, an expansive system of footbridges and subways was envisioned by government planners as early as the 1960s. By the 1970s, the first footbridge emerged, threading through Connaught Road Central between the General Post Office and Swire House. Developers were later required to construct above-ground walkways to connect their properties with structures that were adjacent to each other.

And, as the Connaught Road Central highway, known as Route 4, was widened in the 1980s and 1990s to accommodate more car traffic, some pedestrian crossings were removed to make room for more lanes.

The system has proved to be popular with pedestrians. This sheltered route keeps them out of the sun, rain and exhaust fumes of traffic. It works like a smooth conveyor belt transporting commuters to work. But, while it is great for covering distance in a relatively short, hassle-free time, it is terrible for orientation.

The other day I walked from Edinburgh Place along Harcourt Road to get to a tram stop and faced crossing the great divide of Route 4. I found the Murray Road spiral staircase leading to who knows where.

There was no choice but to climb the steps. I entered the Lippo Centre and soon lost sight of the tramway. I felt that since I returned only a few months ago to Hong Kong from the United States I should expect to get lost sometimes. But, as an avid walker in Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh, I felt that I should not be confounded by big cities.

I finally found my way through the Queensway Plaza and United Centre and an exit to the street through a glass-encased passageway. But I took the stairs too soon and landed on the wrong side of the street. So I had to make my way back up to the glass box and try again. I finally took the tram after this ordeal and encountered 75-year-old Sze Wai-suen who had followed in my footsteps - but with a walking stick.

I asked him how he coped with all the steps. 'I factor an extra 10 minutes into my trip because I have to walk very slowly,' said Mr Sze, who told me that a mini-stroke years ago nearly paralysed his right side. 'Having a zebra crossing there would be ideal,' he said.

He is not alone. As the city's population ages, climbing steps will soon prove difficult for many. And this reliance on one form of pedestrian system will immobilise many citizens.

Ip Po-kwok, senior town planner with the Planning Department, said: 'There could be a problem in certain parts [of Hong Kong].' But he emphasised the new building codes mandated barrier-free designs, so more developers would install escalators instead of steps.

Because land is so tight and traffic so congested in Central, Mr Ip said the only way to increase road capacity for cars was to have pedestrians walk above ground. 'There has to be a balance between comfort and safety for the pedestrians and the flow of traffic,' he said.

Hong Kong Arts Centre executive director Alex Hui said that pavements were irreplaceable and just as important as highways. 'Building a promenade is not the solution; it has to be woven into the city's fabric.'

Mr Hui asked his staff to research public space in Hong Kong and elsewhere to better understand how public art may work in the city. Since January, the centre's monthly newsletter has included excerpts of this ongoing research.

The March issue discusses the work of the late American architect Louis Kahn, who practiced in Philadelphia, the first US city to be laid out in grids.

Kahn wrote: 'In a city, the street must be supreme. It is the first institution of the city. The street is a room by agreement, a community room ... dedicated to the city for common use.'