An elderly pedestrian is jostled by crowds waiting to cross a road on a busy Hong Kong pavement, Central Hong Kong

Support for elderly is more likely to be an afterthought than a genuine part of planning processes, according to a new study

A new test of how well districts encourage walking finds many holes in Hong Kong’s walkability, including poor connections in districts frequented by the elderly, unnavigable new towns and a sign that richer people prefer unwalkable neighbourhoods.

Inventor Dr Sun Yi, an Associate Professor with the Department of Building and Real Estate at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, came up with the test as an easy-to-use statistical analysis for town planners, and hopes it could become a first step in community design.

Sun Yi’s walkability map: red is good, blue and green is bad.

The walkability test divides Hong Kong into 213 zones (the so-called Tertiary Planning Units used by government planners) and uses census data to calculate a walkability score based on residential density, the number of street connections in the zone and the land mix.

But Sun says it is an “alarming situation” that zone scores don’t tally with the average age of residents: he would expect to see higher walkability scores in neighbourhoods with more elderly, he says but this doesn’t hold in Hong Kong. “The statistical analysis reveals the planning community does not consider older people,” he says.

According to the first analysis using Sun’s technique, published in Urban Planning International this month, areas in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon are more walkable than the rest of Hong Kong – this doesn’t mean people enjoy or appreciate walking there, says Sun. “Maybe they have to walk, because it saves a lot of time.”

The next step, says Sun, is to conduct qualitative research to marry actual pedestrian experiences with model predictions – Sun’s team is preparing a qualitative survey to assess what he calls the “psycho-social” elements of walkability, including actual and perceived preferences. “Even if the statistically measured walkability is low, studies in other countries find that if people perceive the environment to be highly conducive to walking, then they do walk,” he says.

Sun originally planned to send out questionnaires across four groups of neighbourhoods – high walkability, high income to low walkability, low income – in April but this has now been delayed by coronavirus lockdowns until later this year.

Walkability Impact Assessments

The new model has value as a tool to help planners plot better neighbourhoods, says Sun, who hopes it might one day become like the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment conducted before any major project. “I think it’s feasible to create a ‘Walkability Impact Assessment’,” he says. “I’m organising a workshop with planning professionals and government planners, to discuss other variables to include in this new walkability formula specifically for Hong Kong.”

The idea is to create something quick and easy to use. “Right now, there is no room for walkability assessments at the community level. Actual walks with community leaders, district councillors, for example, usually open happen once a project is further down the development road, and by then it may be too late to address walkability concerns.

“We want to create something that is very easy, that the planners are willing to use because it won’t take a lot of effort. If you look at planning right now, you have to go to the site, walk with the community members, the district councillors, you have to twist arms to get valid data… government planners in particular will find this very difficult to do so, in a pragmatic sense, so we want something that is very easy, people can get data in a big sense in just a few minutes, and then they can go to planning better prepared.”

Sun says planning in Hong Kong has, for too long, favoured the automobile – partly down to the larger zone sizes used in the development of new towns. “We need larger zone sizes to have public open spaces, green spaces, public recreation facilities but then we need to sacrifice walkability levels,” he says. With MTR’s West Rail Line, as an example, almost at full capacity already, “we have to some extent encouraged car-oriented development in the New Territories,” says Sun.

He also says the concept of “self sufficient” neighbourhoods proved much harder to implement in reality. “At the time when Tuen Mun was being built, there were jobs in the industrial buildings nearby to the MTR, but people would tell us, these jobs don’t suit my needs, I still have to travel downtown to pursue jobs.”

And Sun says the hotspots of walkability found by his model around MTR stations in New Territories show there is value in the Hong Kong model of “railway plus property development”. “To some extent we have to thank MTR, because although they got a lot of money from this process, if not for this mode of development, the land close to the MTR would not have such high walkability,” he says.


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