Walk this way, talk this way: The global Walk21 Conference

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It takes more than accessibility to make a city truly ‘walkable’, advocates say as Hong Kong hosts Asia’s first ever Walk21 conference.

Hong Kong officials have reaffirmed their commitment to constructing a more walkable Hong Kong, but critics stress there is still a long way to go to make a well-connected pedestrian network truly enjoyable.

The city is in the middle of a five-day international conference Walk21 Hong Kong from 3 to 7 October to promote walking as a key component in the future urban design of cities and to shape a low carbon and livable city. Co-hosted by local policy think tank Civic Exchange and UK-based Walk21, the conference sees 156 experts from 38 countries leading the discussion of how walkability can be achieved through architecture, city landscaping, and technology and innovation. Hong Kong has recently joined the likes of London, Ottawa, Sydney and Vienna to sign the International Charter for Walking.

“In many ways, Hong Kong is a very walkable city with a high urban density and 90% of our commutes is made by either walking or public transportation. On the other hand, many people think it is time to re-examine the focus of our urban and transport development strategy which has served Hong Kong well over the past 40 years,” Maura Wong, CEO of Civic Exchange, addressed at the opening ceremony. “Instead of big and tall buildings and huge infrastructure projects, people are yearning for the environments to be more human-centric and pedestrian-friendly.”

According to Wong, a new report on the city’s walkability will be published alongside a tool to score each of Hong Kong’s 18 districts on the subject.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor (林鄭月娥) led an impressive list of keynote speakers from the government, including Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung (張炳良), Director of Planning Ling Kar-kan (凌嘉勤), and Under Secretary for the Environment Christine Loh Kung-wai (陸恭蕙) who was Civic Exchange’s co-founder in 2000.

As Lam noted at the opening ceremony, the government has rolled out a Universal Accessibility Programme involving more than 200 projects to make public walkways barrier-free and more inclusive. Each of the District Councils has also been invited to nominate from public proposals received three walkways in its district for priority implementation of lift retrofitting works for grade-separated walkways.

As much as the government is enthusiastic about their plans, Southern District Councillor Paul Zimmerman tells Harbour Times that there is still much room for improvement..


Walk the walk

“If you look at the fact that 85% of the people walk every day, compared to many other cities in the world, we have got very high level of walkability. Accessibility is high, mobility is high, car ownership is relatively low. In that sense, we are doing really well,” He puts. “That being said, we have designed the city for mobility, but we haven’t designed the city for dwelling. This city lacks public space where people can take a seat and relax.”

Zimmerman is also founder of Designing Hong Kong, an NGO that identifies urban planning deficiencies and advocates interventions to deliver a sustainable and livable city.

As Zimmerman argues, the electronic road pricing scheme the government is currently proposing is a good initiative, but officials will need to have a right philosophy and offer an overall plan with transport infrastructures to allow drivers to park outside the charging zone.

“It’s ‘park and walk’ as I call it. To achieve so the government should move most car parks within the charging zone to the outskirts. Put it underneath the Victoria Park; put it north of Connaught Road corridor, otherwise you are not encouraging people to give up driving and walk instead.”

Chong Chanyau (莊陳有), President of the Hong Kong Union of the Blind, added during the conference that while Hong Kong’s pedestrian network can cater to the needs of most people, it is still far from accommodative to visually-impaired and disabled persons.

Carrie Lam seemed to realise where the needs are when she said: “[W]alkability is more than putting paths in place. It is about paradigm shift in many ways.” The government has introduced a pilot scheme in Kowloon East to waive the land premium for lease modification to construct footbridges or subways connecting private developments. Much to the appreciation of Zimmerman, he argues that a secondary network in the form of above-ground walkways has made street-level walking dull in new towns while such hardwares are missing in places like Mong Kok and Kowloon Bay where they are most needed.

“Ultimately, walkability is all microscopic interventions and it has to come from the government at the highest level,” Zimmerman says, using New York City and London as examples of successful government interventions. “Not only does it cost money but it also needs the will power to come up with inclusive plans.”