Life Between Buildings - A Social Experiment to Make Hong Kong Walkable

A social experiment was created by Make A Difference (MaD) Institute with the vision to 'make Hong Kong walkable'. A cross-post from Healthy Street Lab - Let's find out more!

Published by Hermion on 02/05/2018

What does Hong Kong look like in your eyes? Full of high-rise buildings and crowded streets? Indeed, buildings and roads are spaces with the highest usage in the city. What is the place of pedestrians? Is there any room for us to reimagine life on the ground in Hong Kong?

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Image courtesy of Bertha Wang

Making Hong Kong Walkable: From Top-down to Bottom-up

There is a growing sense of awareness on the importance of the walking environment in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong 2030+ Planning Vision and Strategy and the Policy Address 2017, the walkable city is stated as one of the key development objectives. Not only the government, many organisations have started to to pay attention to the walkability of our city.

Multidisciplinary social innovation practice Make A Difference (MaD) Institute has recently kickstarted a social lab on walkability called the Healthy Street Lab. Inspired by the social lab model of social change agent Kennisland in the Netherlands, a group of lab fellows from various disciplines, together with engineers from the Transport Department, install themselves in Sham Shui Po, a dense neighbourhood in Hong Kong, from March to July 2018 to engage the community and encourage people to walk longer in the streets. The aim is to facilitate the public and professionals to tackle public issues together.

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Street planning strategists share what constitutes healthy walking and how the lab may achieve it, Image courtesy of Make a Difference Institute

The Street as a Space of Social Health

Why does health take centrestage when we talk about streets? Air conditions our very experience of streetside walking. In a congested city like Hong Kong, we know too well how unpleasant walking can be in humid summers and chilly winters, next to heavy traffic (and arrogant drivers).

Clean Air Network, a local non-governmental organisation and research partner of the lab, proposed looking at the interconnection between environmental injustice and the health condition through the social deprivation index. Neighbourhoods suffering from urban decay usually also tend to have a higher social deprivation index, with lower-income and vulnerable populations who don’t have the resources to move to other healthier, more desirable environments. So where there is clean air, there is more, and happier, walking.

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Image courtesy of Make a Difference Institute

The Social Lab Method

In the following four months, lab fellows will conduct field research by interviewing Sham Shui Po residents (affectionately “Kai Fongs” in Cantonese) to learn their street experiences. The fellows will then prototype for a walkable neighbourhood based on the stories and insights collected. MaD Institute also completed two similar social labs on the public library and the park in 2017. These projects have successfully made an impact in the local community and drawn attention from relevant government departments to learn from this co-creative way of community engagement and urban design.

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The Healthy Street Lab process from March to July 2018, Image courtesy of Make a Difference Institute

With a user-based approach, the Healthy Street Lab adopts design thinking, placing empathy and understanding of the users at the heart of the design process and putting designers in the shoes of ordinary users. To gain a local perspective from the Sham Shui Po community, the lab fellows did two things:

The first is to empathise with the elderly and the disabled in Sham Shui Po, who are often neglected during the design phase, by navigating the district with accessibility aids such as wheelchairs and crutches. They took turns to be the carer and the care receiver, as a way to experience how the elderly and the disabled find their way around. The walking experiment took place on a Saturday afternoon during which the area was packed with crowds of young people and families enjoying their leisure time. The walk was divided into four sections, covering a range of streets from main roads with heavy traffic, side roads serving mainly Kai Fongs, to the crowded Ap Liu Street pedestrian zone.

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Walking Sham Shui Po with accessibility aids, Image courtesy of Make a Difference Institute

The journey was reported to be unpleasant, as most of the streets are too narrow for wheelchairs and crutches. This was especially the case when the area gets busy. One of the participants had a strong sense of discomfort blocking half of the street in a wheelchair. Even though no one complained, it was not a pleasant experience to obstruct other people in the street due to physical constraints. It was worse when the green light started flashing but the participants were only half-way through the crossing. These considerations are likely to lower the incentive of wheelchair and crutch users to enjoy street life. Participants also noticed the uneven pavements which made walking difficult for crutch users, whose experience is rarely noticed in the daily life of the able-bodied. 

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Image courtesy of Make a Difference Institute

Although the street design in Sham Shui Po is inconvenient in some way, it is vibrant with a unique local energy. Street life happens on diverse levels, from the street vendors on the ground, to street stalls on a normal eye-level. This generates interesting street views for people across different eye levels: kids, the elderly, wheelchair users and average adults.

After the walking experiment, lab fellows gained a local perspective through talking to residents living in the area. With the key question “What kind of streets make people walk more?” in mind, the team gathered the likes and dislikes of users and analysed their everyday experience before coming up with prototypes for the streets.

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The lab gathers views from members of the community on the issues they face day to day, Image courtesy of Make a Difference Institute

Involving the Community Throughout the Process

The Healthy Street Lab is fortunate to have a group of Kai Fongs taking part in the design and prototyping phases. Story collection is an important research method for the lab, putting emphasis on human experience and qualitative evidence. Each fellow will partner with one to two Kai Fongs and share daily routines and experiences in the streets. The ongoing research and Kai Fong’s stories are being documented to generate design ideas.

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Images courtesy of Bertha Wang

Although the lab is still in its early stage, the impacts seen in similar projects overseas make us anticipate how Hong Kong can also be redesigned to be more walkable. The Healthy Street Lab will not be able to solve all street issues in a mere four months, and the prototypes to be produced are specific to the context of Sham Shui Po only and may not be replicable to other districts. 

We however envision this co-creative process to be a pilot and inspiration for future developments. The support and participation of government departments in these experiments also gives us hope as to the new ideas and innovation Hong Kong can have in city planning and design.

Words by Hermion Au

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