Amid the squabbles about the basement at the West Kowloon arts hub, you might have missed what was happening above ground, and recent Legislative Council discussions about integrating the cultural district with its surrounding areas.
Currently, the space between Canton Road in Jordan and Kowloon MTR Station is dominated by construction cranes and workers wearing hard hats. Even though several design blueprints of buildings in the West Kowloon Cultural District have been released, it is hard to imagine what the area will look like, let alone how people could walk around there. And while the site intends to be pedestrian-focused, the area is surrounded by high-capacity roads that could potentially make it an island unto itself.
Trying to encourage people to visit the cultural district should be easy, with its plans for art facilities, cultural programmes and incredible views of the harbour. But at the Legco meeting, lawmakers were not entirely convinced that the Transport Department had sufficient plans for pedestrian infrastructure to connect the existing district with the new.
The department has proposed a mixture of subways and footbridges that require people to move above and below ground, in order to get to the area and the waterfront. Meanwhile, much of the ground level is being sacrificed to vehicles, and current proposals will bring even more traffic to the area. Plans for road widening will further force pedestrians off the streets.
What the proposal lacks and the department may have missed is the opportunity to encourage more people to get to the cultural district on foot. For this to happen, planners have to look beyond the immediate pedestrian connections between the cultural district and adjacent sites, and towards greater integration of the entire district.
A whole-district approach requires a focus on “walkability” on both sides of Canton Road, including that of neighbouring Jordan and Tsim Sha Tsui. Making seamless connections between the existing and new districts – with easy, direct routes featuring few stairs, escalators and lifts – could induce people to walk, and to walk longer distances.
A vibrant street life entices people to make repeat visits and to stay longer as they enjoy the experiences. A detailed discussion of the experience of pedestrians may be beyond the scope of a Legco discussion, but it is important to bear such features in mind when planning footbridges, subways and other structures.
Encouraging people to walk and use public transport could lead to reduced pressure on the roads in the area, and thus less need to increase the road capacity for vehicles.
Hong Kong people were enamoured when they first encountered the Norman Foster vision of a city park, accessible on foot and completely car-free, and the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority is pushing through this vision with plans for a pedestrian-only thoroughfare at ground level within the site.
With much of the area still at the planning stage, there is an opportunity to expand this concept. The cultural district can be a catalyst for a pedestrianisation revolution in the densely populated and increasingly car-dominated Kowloon peninsula.