Walkability charity Walk DVRC will run out of money by July, says its CEO Jennifer Walker Frisinger, as core family foundation donors shift to poverty and hunger charities during the pandemic.
Unless new funding can be found, Walk DVRC will have its name carved onto the tombstone of doomed attempts to pedestrianise Des Voeux Road Central, a concept that has resisted the best efforts of NGOs and planners since first mooted in 2000.
“It’s would be such a shame, because we have such great momentum,” says Frisinger, pointing out that the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) has already pledged HK$5 million of the total HK$12 million required for the charity’s flagship proposal, Sheung Wan Fiesta.
The fiesta, planned for the end of 2020, would see two blocks of Des Voeux Road Central closed for 90 days, a major project that Frisinger says is the minimum required to have a serious impact and to show the potential for pedestrianisation in Hong Kong. “You need something big,” she says.
A New Yorker herself, with three daughters living in New York City, Frisinger laments the pace of community projects in Hong Kong, especially against other cities in the pandemic world. “In New York City, the mayor announced he would pedestrianise streets, and the next day it happened. They put up the saw-horses, blocked the streets, and the cars just went another way,” she says.
But Frisinger says in Hong Kong, her biggest opposition isn’t money, or even government bureaucracy, but the fact that nobody – on the government or the district council – wants to get any complaints. “We have to say this all the time: do you think it’s realistic to create change like this and not get any complaints, because that’s not going to happen,” she says.
Schemes from Electronic Road Pricing to pedestrianising Hollywood Road have all fallen victim to such one-punch deaths, shelved forever after the grumbling of a few. “They say, well, that was our attempt, and now it’s shelved,” she says.
The timidity of elected and non-elected officials makes for slow going. “The Transport Department (TD) will only sign off if the District Council (DC) signs off. DC will only sign off if TD signs off,” says Frisinger.
“And TD has never said no,” she says. “They’ve never turned us down. They just keep coming back with more requests.”
Jumping through hoops
The charity says it has now drawn a line with the TD’s latest demand – to interview bus passengers in New Territories about the impact of the pedestrianisation down in Central – and, even if funding can be found, won’t shell out for any more expensive surveys or traffic assessments, other than one further HK$450,000 Traffic Impact Assessment (TIA) essential for the 90-day fiesta plan.
Frisinger lambasts existing government consultancy schemes, such as TD’s 30-month walkability study which, she says, cost millions and produced nothing. “They need to change that model and completely look at how they can make a better place for people on foot, period,” she says.
But another issue is the fragmented state of Hong Kong NGOs, she says, with no clear roadmap or shared vision between them. Walk DVRC tried bringing various groups together, including heavy-hitters Civic Exchange, Designing Hong Kong, Clean Air Network, and smaller NGOs focused on walkability, but couldn’t find any fundamental agreement to take forward.
“I think everyone would agree upon the fact that Hong Kong needs, for its mental and physical health, more public open space. I think it’s that simple,” she says.
“But a lot of groups are out there doing small things, and it’s working against them,” she says.
For example, taking down some railings or changing signage, she says, doesn’t create sufficient impact. “It doesn’t affect enough of the population. It’s a conundrum – you need to start small, that’s what we’re trying to do, you need proof of concept. But by the same token, if it doesn’t affect enough people, nobody really hears your story and you can’t really get the word out to a wide enough audience.”
Frisinger is now working to secure funding to pay salaries in July and to ramp up coordination with new district councillors who, she says, are largely in the dark about the Des Voeux Road plans and Walk DVRC’s project proposals.
Walk DVRC met with the Central & Western District Council on 19 March this year, but Frisinger says the result was disappointing. “We didn’t progress as far as we thought we did. Everybody in the room was new, more or less, and they didn’t know as much about it as we thought they would,” she says.
The appetite in the council was more for a long-term weekend closure scheme. “We’re more than happy to work on that, but what they don’t realise is, it’s a much more difficult proposition for the Traffic Impact Assessment, it’s outrageously expensive, we’re not going to fundraise for that and I don’t think the DC are going to pay for it,” says Frisinger.
The TIA for such a scheme would cost around HK$2 million, to start with – but a weekend-only closure means any “programming”, as Frisinger calls the planned entertainment, food and seating, needs to be shipped in and out of the zone every weekend, which adds to the cost.
Frisinger’s preferred option is the 90-day closure, a period that allows proper measurement and adjustment. There’s an option to scale down the entertainment and food programme, but the charity is cautious on closing streets without providing something for visitors. “People are not going to come to Des Voeux Road Central just because it’s closed,:” says Frisinger. “The entertainment value isn’t there, at least initially.”
Frisinger doesn’t seem daunted by the imminent exhaustion of funds, and says she will keep driving momentum with the District Council.
“A year ago, our aim was for Carrie Lam to say yes to this,” she says. “Now, if that was our aim, nobody would come.” Instead, Walk DVRC aims to work with district councillors such as Ted Hui Chi-fung, who’s chairing a new working group on walkability for the Central & Western District.
Longer term, Frisinger’s vision is for like-minded organisations to join forces in a coordinated urban planning force, housed and partly funded by the URA. “We should all fall under the URA, that office should look at all of these urban planning things, like health, safety, economic benefits, and all of us should be housed and funded, at least partly, by URA,” she says. “As a group, we’d be stronger.”