Suited up: “Elderly for a day”, including a senior government official, a District Councillor, a ballerina and several corporate executives, prepare to tighten straps and set off towards Exchange Square

Many of us know, intellectually at least, the urban challenges of our elderly. We see “cardboard grannies” stooped and struggling against traffic. We hear of elderly knocked down and killed on the roads almost every week, we read the alarming number of elderly suicides, usually lonely men or women on isolated housing estates, unable to get out and about, disconnected from the city communities by inaccessible paths and ever-faster roads bisecting their towns.

With all this in mind, I jumped at the chance to join a unique urban workshop in mid-Levels this weekend. Run by the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design (HKIUD), the event offered the chance to walk a mile in the elderly’s shoes, quite literally, donning special “elderly exoskeletons” giving us some of the physical pains and limitations of an 80-year-old.

Our group was high-level and diverse, including Michael Fong Hok-shing, Director of Hong Kong’s Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD); Irene Lo, HK Ballet’s Associate Director of Training; road safety czar Julian Kwong; Southern District vice-chair Paul Zimmerman; and executives and designers from the Urban Land Institute, bus firm Bravo, developers Chinachem and hospitality giant Hyatt.

The suits are like the evil twin of modern construction worker exoskeletons, with wrist and ankle weights to make every movement a chore and an unforgiving harness connecting knees and neck and, depending on masochism setting, capable of bending their wearers almost double: the classic “dowager’s hump” few elderly will escape. Special yellow-tinted cloudy googles simulated elderly macular degeneration. Our hearing was spared artificial degeneration or tinnitus but, in the heat of a June morning, the physical and vision constraints were more than enough to bring a message home within even the first few minutes of the experience.

We started our expedition at a cafe halfway up the post-Caine Road section of the mid-Levels escalator, with HKIUD president Barry Wilson laying down our challenge for the day: reach Exchange Square on foot and then take a bus to Festival Walk.

Easy enough. I’ve personally made that journey hundreds of times, often with young children and usually with a stroller, so I’m aware of the many walkability issues around Soho and mid-Levels. I’ve made a short documentary on the accessibility issues of the abysmal Exchange Square bus station. But still, this was an entirely new experience.

The walking was, as expected, slow and difficult, particularly on the slippery slopes around Prince’s Terrace and on Shelley Street lower down. But harder was the vision: it was near-impossible to see the edge of steps or the many pavement hazards and obstructions, the ones I normally curse about or tweet about or kick out of the way with my normal 50-year-old youthful vigour.

We had a break on the concrete seating on Shelley Street opposite Mina Dev’ Wil – I won’t usually sit there with my kids as it’s a smokers’ paradise, but my back was already killing me and I wasn’t about to be fussy. The seats were like heaven. In fact (and many pointed this out during our walk) anything to perch on, even for a moment, was a godsend: even the crudest, hardest, ugliest bastard stool was appreciated.

Pedestrian frenemies

I was disappointed we had been directed to use the mid-Levels escalator walkway route, as our path didn’t involve any major road crossings. As a road safety journalist, I’d wanted to experience first-hand the issues of spotting vehicles and crossing at an elderly pace.

But as HKIUD’s Wilson explained, researchers had deliberately chosen the raised-walkway route as one generally perceived as “walkable” or “accessible” – the government will indeed talk about such walkway structures as pedestrian-friendly design, yet the experience of many elderly might indicate these “friends o’ pedestrians” are more like frenemies.

The view through the “macular degeneration goggles”: if one could even lift one’s head, spotting the toilet symbol was difficult

We continued, slowly, to Central Market, taking perhaps an hour to go less than 600 metres and holding up other pedestrians at bottlenecks and chokepoints. Once there, our taskmaster set us a side-challenge: find the toilets. Of course, this is very tricky with limited eyesight and being bent double. The signposts to the toilets are high up (it’s hard to look up when your spine is facing down) and the trendy little symbols (cutesy wireframe men and women) are not obviously toilet signs, as well as being almost indistinguishable from the other cluttered text and symbols on the signposts.

During our debriefing later, an exec from Central Market developer Chinachem (who’d gamely taken part in the exosuit-wearing) told me the firm had originally designed the mall for commuters and IFC/Exchange Square professionals: the number of elderly flocking to the renovated market had surprised them. I wouldn’t want to be too harsh on Chinachem for this unexpected visitor profile – I’ve attended many urban planning and walkability workshops with their executives – but there’s certainly a lesson here on assessing and surveying the actual venue users, not the desired venue users. If you build it, someone else might come.

We passed through the infamous Exchange Square Public Transport Interchange and onto a chartered double-decker without incident, although our survival was largely down to the fact we were in a big group wearing hi-viz gear and catching a bus laid on by the bus company with several senior bus execs in our group. Even with these privileges, the bus station was not a particularly pleasant experience, but this is not news to anyone who uses it regularly.

During the debrief, many of us said the same thing: the experience was an eye opener not so much for what the elderly went through but on the importance of staying fit and flexible right now, today. Staying active and healthy is proven to lead to better physical health in older age, with reduced morbidity effectively extending quality of life. Ballet star Irene Lo is ahead of that curve, developing new dance courses for elderly as a way to increase mobility, and taking part in the workshop as a way to understand better some of the physical challenges.

Avoiding “poverty porn”

Now, a group of privileged actors pretending to be old might seem dangerous: at worst, a sort of poverty porn, a way to paper over the truth, to co-opt someone’s pain and reduce it to Ivory Tower discussions over expensive lunches.

But at best, and if done with respect and empathy as I believe HKIUD showed here, it can be an effective window into a problem. None of us took the morning’s suit-wearing so seriously that we claimed to now fully understand elderly issues. But HKIUD’s Wilson says the various researchers tied to the project had still been using information gained from the last 2018 session for years afterwards, and that the surveys and interviews we did on Saturday would have genuine value in the urban planning research community.

Perhaps most importantly, the participation of a senior government official shows some promise that the issues of walkability, safe streets and community building are on the government’s radar. Michael Fong, as director of CEDD, is a key player in the development of both the Lantau artificial islands and the Northern Metropolis, and he’ll be setting the design principles developers will be compelled to meet. That he spent a Saturday donning an elderly exoskeleton for a 30°C hike through some elderly urban hazards could be a very good sign for accessibility in those new developments.

Elderly development in Hong Kong is already crowded with naff ideas, from former Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s empty “active ageing life” (a skimpy half paragraph in her famous “I see people sleeping on the bus” speech), to the latest eye-roller from the Urban Renewal Authority (“smart” exercise gadgets in nano parks), but fundamentally, elderly need to be able to walk or wheel from their building into and around their community.

Someone at the workshop (apologies for forgetting who) made an excellent point about “15 minute cities” – at our 80-year-old pace, 15 minutes was not really very far at all. And if the spanking-new nano park is across a busy road needing a bridge to reach, and (most likely) has illegally parked vehicles or construction waste blocking its entrance, if the pavement trees have all been destroyed making the pavement hot as hell, then deploying some fancy Shenzhen technology in a little polluted concrete pen full of construction workers smoking won’t actually help anyone.

Let’s hope the conversation can move faster now, with a CEDD boss on board, and perhaps shift from designing trendy new “smart city” stuff to improving our existing street management and embedding a resilience to illegal obstructions into the design of our new towns.

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