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Stepping out: how architects plan to get Hongkongers walking

There’s a movement afoot to get us all walking more – and not just from the 10,000 steps a day brigade.

Architects around the world are espousing the virtues of walkable cities, where not only do the streets and paths encourage pedestrian activity, but the buildings themselves are designed to promote people-flow.

Walkable cities are the cornerstone of “new urbanism”, an approach to spatial planning that promotes environmentally friendly habits. Its holy grail is a car-free city, to which several countries, including China, have publicly aspired. (Norway has proposed banning cars in Oslo by 2019, and France has already piloted car-free days in Paris).

US firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG) masterplanned the Chengdu Tianfu District Great City, a self-sustaining, environmentally sensitive 1.3-square-kilometre satellite city on the outskirts of Chengdu, as a model for China’s future suburbs. The project, currently under construction, is based on the premise that 80,000 people will live in the Great City, which mathematically would make it one of the most densely populated districts in the world.

It won’t be completely car-free: AS+GG partner Robert Forest said that idea was discussed, but ultimately rejected (would people buy a home in a place where they weren’t allowed to own a car?). But all day-to-day needs will be within walking distance of residential buildings, and you won’t actually need a car to get out of the city, as a multi-modal hub incorporating a high speed train, local subway and bus stations will provide adequate public transportation.

Nevertheless, it’s a greenfield site, so planners have the luxury of starting from scratch. How to make the existing city of Hong Kong more walkable is a hot topic in planning circles, and was the subject of Walk21 Hong Kong, the 17th annual conference on walking and liveable communities, held in early October.

To be fair, Hong Kong is rather walkable already. A walkability survey conducted by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2009/2010 found that almost 39 per cent of daily trips are made entirely on foot, and that only 15 per cent of respondents even owned a car, which the researchers deduced was a reflection of Hongkongers’ willingness to walk.

AS+GG’s Robert Forest, who has lived in Hong Kong, uses the city as an example of somewhere developers and urban planners have got pedestrian-friendliness right.

“It’s the multiple layers of walkability,” he explains. Merely elevating pedestrians to overhead walkways doesn’t work, as everything at street level dies. Hong Kong’s walkways act as connectors, linking people to shops and offices, back and forth through air-conditioned buildings, which for a dense urban environment results in an optimal flow of movement, according to Forest.

“The principles we incorporated in Chengdu’s Great City are applicable to Hong Kong,” he said. “Including walkability and the permeability of buildings is essential in planning for future development to improve the quality of life for all.”

Architect Rocco Yim Suen-kee agrees that Hong Kong stacks up quite well in the walkability stakes, but sees opportunities to do more.

Yim, founder of Rocco Design Architects and a presenter at Walk21, commends the city’s functional, three-dimensional network of walkways, bridges and subways, but says the experience “has to be enjoyable”.

Well designed architecture can make walking both physically and psychologically rewarding, he says.

“What architecture can do is bring more ‘seeing’ and ‘feeling’ aspects to the spatial quality,” Yim said. “So when you walk past buildings with inviting shops, grand lobbies and alluring courtyards, it stimulates the mind, and enhances your mental wellbeing. It’s a rewarding psychological experience,” he says.

With society becoming more aware of environmental quality, Yim says, it’s incumbent upon architects to produce spaces with good ventilation, good lighting, and appropriate noise level; to maximise greenery, and to design buildings that consume less energy. Permeability of pedestrian pathways goes hand-in-hand with this sustainability agenda, he says.

“It involves suitable segregation of vehicles and pedestrians, and a diversity of experiences for walkers. This means providing routes that give a different ambience, different environments, and different attractions,” he said.

While there are limitations to improving walkability in some old districts of Hong Kong, new and revitalised districts such as the planned East Kowloon Cultural Centre, in which Rocco Design Architecture is involved, offer much potential, Yim says.

Skirting the harbourfront, its series of pedestrian linkages will merge public and private spaces energised with art and culture, while giving a new lease of life to the old, rundown neighbourhood of Ngau Tau Kok.

However, no matter how well designed a district is, it must connect seamlessly with surrounding neighbourhoods, Yim says. “This is critical. If it’s going to be a walkable district, it should also be connected by walking from different directions. Walking is about connectivity, both physically and spiritually.”