Walking. Using your own two legs to propel yourself around a city, getting to know its shops, shopkeepers, restaurants and people face-to-face as you saunter along, is the best way to scope out a place. Some Asian cities, including Hong Kong, aren’t quite built for the walker.
Hong Kong’s urban fabric is a winding maze of concrete overpasses and three-lane city highways, the car-filled streets towered over by cloud-brushed buildings. Pedestrians are banished to walkways that snake through shopping malls, to pavements that are fenced in or to skywalks suspended above the streets.
Skywalking sounds nice doesn’t it? It’s not. Being forced up an escalator and then herded with a sea of people to stop-off points isn’t my idea of a leisurely weekend stroll taking in the cityscape scenery.
Skywalks make me feel like a schoolchild who doesn’t have the freedom to walk wherever she wants but who must follow her teacher and walk in a straight line with her classmates.
The walkways make me rebellious. They make me want to walk in the opposite direction to the direction you’re supposed to walk in. They make me want to scream at cars and all the drivers who’re taking up too much space on our roads.
More importantly – skywalks kill-off street life. Walking up there you simply don’t see the shops, cafés, restaurants and markets below you. Being suspended above a city you miss the opportunity to get to know your neighbourhood fishmonger, you won’t stumble upon the tailor you’ve been looking for, you’ll never find that wine bar you’re sure exists somewhere among the many alleys beneath the skywalk.
While it seems a smart solution for such a cramped space as Hong Kong, the skywalk should be abolished and the walker should be allowed back onto the streets. Some governments around the region are rethinking their skywalk-plans. Thailand recently scrapped a planned new section for Bangkok, for instance. But that’s not enough – more should be done to make Asia’s streets more people friendly.
On Hong Kong’s narrow pavements, you jostle for space with food-delivery men, old ladies who carry discarded cardboard boxes on their way to the recycling station, with bamboo scaffolding, with open trucks offloading parcels and, of course, with thousands of other pedestrians trying to get from A to B. It’s lovely walking among all this chaos – it’s what makes a city lively and interesting but when you have to navigate streets as if on a tightrope, walking loses its attraction.
It’s no surprise that many decide to drive or get in a taxi instead. It’s much easier getting around this tiny landmass on four wheels. But it’s time urban planners in cities such as Hong Kong took back the streets from the car and gave them to the walker.