Walking The Walk With Environmentalist Markus Shaw
In the beginning there was the Praya, a stretch of Hong Kong’s waterfront and the heart of Chinese entrepreneurship. Then, with reclamation of the harbour, the Praya became Des Voeux Road Central (DVRC). In those days, trams and foot traffic on the key thoroughfare interacted freely, and there were no barriers squeezing pedestrians into narrow footpaths.
Hong Kong can do it better
But today, DVRC is a mess, a horrendous pedestrian experience, the most polluted street along the north shore of Hong Kong Island, and neither disabled-friendly nor elderly-friendly.
The side streets are uninviting and underused; there’s serious traffic congestion; and the street furniture—such as it exists—is poorly designed and badly executed.
Cities like New York, Paris, Madrid or Singapore, which understand the benefits of valuing people over cars, have turned or are turning their CBDs into desirable destinations attractive to workers and visitors alike. We can do this too. In fact, I believe Hong Kong can do it better.
What is Walk DVRC?
To this end, Walk DVRC, of which I am chair, was founded in January last year as a non-governmental organisation to move forward a project for the revitalisation of DVRC between Pedder Street and Western Market.
The plan envisages a fairer sharing of space between vehicles and pedestrians, with the trams and one eastbound vehicle lane continuing to operate and the rest of the street being given over to pedestrians. This would result in an immediate reduction in air pollution and an improved walking experience, making the whole area much more pleasant for visitors and those working there.
Bringing the streets back to life
But the project is not only about DVRC; the pedestrianisation would promote the regeneration of our entire decaying CBD, creating vibrant neighbourhoods and showcasing the rich history of this unique area. This isn’t about gentrification. It’s about opening up a neglected space that has significant cultural value to the city.
Walk DVRC is a placemaking opportunity that is also about connectivity and accessibility. Des Voeux Road Central runs right through the middle of iconic sites such as Tai Kwun, PMQ, Man Mo Temple, Central Market and Western Market. Pedestrianising the thoroughfare will give residents and visitors easy, comfortable access to all of these great sites.
The scheme sounds ambitious, and I’m not saying it will be easy. Was the pedestrianisation of a section of Broadway in New York easy? Will the pedestrianisation of Singapore’s Orchard Road, or the proposal to ban cars from downtown Madrid, be easy?
We’re under no illusion that we can achieve our final goal all at once, so we’re working on two projects to demonstrate the feasibility of Walk DVRC’s vision.
Celebrating our city
The first is an international design competition, with designers, architects and urban planners around the world invited to submit concepts for the transformation of DVRC. The competition criteria require the proposals to be realistic and feasible. The winner will be announced in December during Business of Design Week and will have the opportunity to address forums during the event.
We’re also working on staging a Sheung Wan Fiesta involving the pedestrianisation of two blocks of DVRC, from Western Market to Hillier Street, for 90 days.
A gastronomy element will showcase local food, there’ll be a strong arts and cultural element involving local talent and, more importantly, there will be sitting out, greening and gaming areas that will show the community how the street can be used for pleasure when cars are not present.
The fiesta will enable us to measure the day-to-day impact of pedestrianisation on people’s lives and how traffic patterns change. We’re applying for funding at the moment—the budget is around HK$12 million—and hoping to stage the fiesta next year.
I’ve been involved in many environmental campaigns and this is the first in which no one I speak to thinks it’s a bad idea. The city’s young people have a very different vision for Hong Kong than their parents and grandparents.
In the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, the population was growing by one million people a decade. That presented huge challenges, which we met by building public housing, hospitals, schools and roads.
Today, the city’s population is stable and young people are more interested in the environment, health, community living and friendly neighbourhoods. By turning DVRC into a walkable district, Hong Kong will be joining other world-class cities in valuing people over cars and prioritising health and well-being.