When it comes to developing the new CBD2 in Kowloon East, Hong Kong’s government thinks it has a secret weapon to boost the area’s value for businesses: walkability. Since its establishment in 2012, the Energizing Kowloon East Office has coordinated a number of efforts to make the area more pedestrian-friendly.
Sidewalks have been widened, new crosswalks installed and signalling adjusted at 34 different locations in Kowloon Bay, Ngau Tau Kok and Kwun Tong. Even the area’s back alleys have been decorated with murals and wayfinding signage in the hopes of making them more pleasant places to walk.
More ambitious plans are in the works. The government now encourages building owners to construct subways and footbridges, which could eventually create a parallel, grade-separated pedestrian network like the one that exists in Central.
“A new commercial building developed by leading Singapore developer Mapletree at the corner of Kwun Tong Road and Wai Yip Street, which will be launched in October 2017, is a prime example. The government has been in touch with Mapletree on the feasibility and details for connecting the Kwun Tong waterfront promenade with Ngau Tau Kok MTR by a sheltered pathway.”
The lobby of Mapletree which will be completed in 2017. (photo: artist's impression)
Exterior of Mapletree (photo: artist's impression)
There is a lot of money at stake. The government says Kowloon East has the potential to add five million square metres of additional commercial and office space, but tenants may not be drawn to the area unless they see improvements to the quality of its public space. Since the neighbourhoods being transformed into CBD2 were originally developed as industrial areas, some of the pavements cater for loading and unloading of goods instead of being pedestrian-friendly. As the number of office tenants has grown, pedestrian facilities have quickly become a topic that cannot be ignored.
Studies have found that pedestrian-friendly streets increase property values; in the United States, denser, more walkable cities have higher GDP per capita than sprawling areas that make it hard to get around by foot.
Hong Kong already does well on paper – more than 80 percent of the population gets around by bus, rail and foot. But they may be suffering in the process, as pedestrians have to put up with narrow footpaths, dripping air conditioners, a lack of street trees and a limited number of street crossings. “Pedestrians are not put first, and are often excluded in favor of vehicle-users at the urban planning level,” says local think tank Civic Exchange.
Many streets in Kowloon East feel more like highways, with delivery trucks and cars racing by pedestrians. The government’s plan to create a network of footbridges and subways may help shelter pedestrians from traffic and the elements, but surveys have revealed that people like having the option to walk at street level, too. When the government closed surface-level crossings on Salisbury Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, forcing pedestrians to walk through a subway to reach the harbourfront, it set off a decade-long campaign to restore crosswalks. The surface crossing was finally reopened last year.
In October, Civic Exchange will host Walk 21, an international conference on walkability. Experts from around the world will offer their insight on how to make Hong Kong and other cities more pedestrian-friendly places. Hopefully the government will be taking notes. The value of Hong Kong’s newest office district could be at stake.