MDes Talks: Exploring Walkability in HK - Beyond Escalators, Stairs and Covered Walkways

People] cross streets where it is most natural for them, avoid detours, obstacles, stairs and steps, and prefer direct lines of walking everywhere.

- Jan Gehl, Cities for People  (2010)

Students in the Urban Environments Design (MDes) specialism worked together with Lincoln Paiva, a Brazilian urban thinker in walkability and micro interventions to rethink a walkable and livable city, earlier on the 7th December.


The theory of walkability was developed by Jeff Speck1 . According to the author, to encourage the population to walk on the streets, there are four basic conditions: be profitable, safe, comfortable and interesting. Before going further, it is needed to define the walkability and its importance for the contemporary cities. It is a study about why people walk or not in some regions. The mobility (by walking) has a huge impact on the automobiles traffic, the demand for public transportation, micro economy and also public health and life quality. In other words, it is always positive for the city when people are encouraged to walk more.

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world2. Besides that, the geography of the city is composed of many hills. To make possible the exploration of the territory, mid-level escalators, stairs and covered walkways were created Which makes the connections more efficient and more convenient for the population. These are both phenomenon already documented by Prof Laurent Gutierrez and Dr Valerie Portefaix described in their book « Mapping HK » and also by Melissa Christ in her studies « Hong Kong Stair Archive - Documenting the Walkable city ».

However, the segmentation of the road had few results in combating motor vehicle congestion according to surveys conducted by the Hong Kong Transport Department. In « Planning and Urban Design for Liveable High-Density City », a report on dense and livable cities published in 2016 by the Hong Kong Planning Department, shows that Hong Kong will continue to experiment with walkways and develop underground paths for pedestrians. But how do these decisions impact the lives of people in the socio-spatial dimension, of cultural relations, and of conviviality?

We do not know exactly what impact the stairways and walkways have on people's lives in Hong Kong over the years, yet, the walkability could show that street segmentation for cars and pedestrian walkways can produce areas specifically for pedestrians. It may seem to meet some motivations for walking, but will these pedestrian strategies adopted in Hong Kong turn the streets into places strictly for cars? And will pedestrians be confined in areas such as walkways and underground spaces -- places that are not natural for people?

Inhabiting the Environment

Hong Kong is all well-connected by tunnels, skywalks, bridges that help the pedestrians cross the city without facing cars and traffic, which stimulates the walkability, reducing the demand for buses and transportation for short distances. This kind of connections, however, can turn a walk into something mechanical, just like a robot going from A to B, without noticing details of the environment, seeing the ground or the sky.

Since ancient times, the sky has been associated with heaven, dreams.

In the Greek and Roman mythology, the sky is associated with the place where Gods and goddess are allowed to live and rule the mortal world, except for Hades, the God of the dead, that lived in the underworld. Even in movies, the importance of the sky can be noticed: for example in Lion King, when Mufasa said that the stars were the ancient Kings watching over them.

The fact is that in such a contemporary world, people tend to be busy working and studying. Then, they forget to notice the simple things like air and even the sky.

Heidegger3 said that the place is essentially made of objects that are linked and connected to other objects. These connections would determine the strength of a place. Architecture is considered the fourth art and its surroundings. It is livable and can contain and be itself a piece of art. In « Physics4», Aristotle say that the body is the place where the human inhabits. There is no space, place or landscape without the body experience.

A Quick Reflection

The workshop wasn't to apply the process of walkability, which would demand more time and another complex analysis. Rather, it was based on a quick exercise in occupying spaces using only one's body to change the perception of pedestrians, making them to aware of and to think about the environment they are currently living in.

The micro interventions were made in crowded spaces, more precisely at Mong Kok, in the middle of the day. With the simple act of standing and looking up, it was possible to change the environment and caught people's attention and make them wonder. It synthesised how unnecessary it seemed to look at the sky, but at the same time, people need this link to connect to nature.

Exploring Walkability in HKMong Kok, full of people and also ads that block the sky

Exploring Walkability in HK

Frederick Gros5 said that the excess of information overloads the brain's ability to process information. The brain needs to register sounds, smells, and known human faces to determine whether the site is dangerous or not. The person who is subjected daily to places like this (being exposed to over-advertising) can experience symptoms of stress and even have their school productivity or work compromised.

Exploring Walkability in HK
Usually you can see people looking to the ground or to the cellphone, but rarely looking up or to the front

Exploring Walkability in HK

Exploring Walkability in HK

Exploring Walkability in HK

According to the second law of Physics6, for every action, there is a reaction. This experience couldn't be different. With a simple act, it was possible to make people wake up and start looking and even interacting with other people to ask what was happening or even to take pictures of something they could not understand immediately.


According to Beringuier , the scenery that we see today can never be the scenery we will see tomorrow, the physical object is not only seen with the sight, but is also experienced by the five senses and is also felt according to the culture and personal bond.

It is not about creating a physical infrastructure to improve the walkability. It is about understanding how variations in the environment can affect the human behaviour. If such simple intervention caused changes, imagine the not-so-simple interventions like the construction of connections and tunnels mentioned before. There is a need for planning a walkable urban design, connecting parks, open spaces, buildings and the most importantly, people. Gehl said that cities need spaces of contemplation, where people can connect with the city and with themselves.

The question is: After this experience, what can be done to create a better design in the city?

1. SPECK, Jeff: Walkable City, How downtown can save America, step by step.
3. HEIDEGGER, Martin: L´Art et L’espace In: Question III-IV. Paris: Gallimard, 1996.
5. GROS, Frederic: Andar, una filosofia: Tauro Press, Buenos Aires, 2014.
7. BERINGUIER, C. e BERINGUIER, P. (1991). Manieres paysageres une methode d’etude, des pratiques. In: GEODOC.Toulouse: Univesité de Toulouse. p. 5-25.

Photo Credit: Lincoln Paiva

Posted by Sylvia Yeung - Living the 20's years old issues and doubts. Born in Brazil, with the heart in Hong Kong. Graduated in Architecture and Urban Planning at Mackenzie Presbyterian University, Sao Paulo. Living and exploring the concrete jungle and mix of emotions contained in the city where the journey of the ancestors began. A current Master's student in Urban Environments Design (MDes).
Cooperation with Lincoln Paiva - Founder of Green Mobility and the Institute of Green Mobility, specialist in city management at the Polytechnic School of the University of Sao Paulo, researcher on Urban Planning, Councilor of Urban Policies of the city of Sao Paulo (Brazil), advisor of the Urban Landscape Protection Commission Of the city of Sao Paulo (Brazil).
MDes Talks is a series of Student Blogs contributed by students in different specialisms under the Master of Design Scheme. It is set out to share students’ first-hand experience in the d-school pedagogy, their projects, takeaways, and student life in general.