Lockdown and stay home, the lessons of Covid-19, have prompted soul-searching worldwide on the future of cities. From Europe to the US, environmentalists and urbanists are exploring a concept that would give residents everything they need within minutes of their front doors.

They call it the 15-minute city. Walking, biking and public transport will be the major mode of travelling for meeting friends, shopping, accessing services and going to work. Access, proximity and safety are the guiding principles of planning. Advocates describe the concept as new utopian.

Photo: Chloe Lai.

Cities across the globe are learning lessons from the pandemic and ways to improve urban design. Disappointingly, not only is discussion of this kind missing in Hong Kong, the Transport Department is promoting a plan that will destroy a community friendly to walkers for the convenience of vehicles.   

Hong Kong has been doing fairly well on access, proximity and safety, thanks to our densely-knit communities, expansive pedestrian network and public transport system. The Lee Gardens neighbourhood in the heart of Causeway Bay is a textbook case of 15-minute city. Bounded by Hennessy Road in the north, Percival Street in the west, Leighton Road to the south and Yun Ping Road in the east, the mixed-use area gives residents everything they need within 15 minutes’ walk of their homes. Victoria Park is also in walking distance.

Well maintained tenement blocks and sleek modern office towers co-exist in the same neighbourhood. Roads, built shortly after World War II, are human scale. On the ground floors of these tenements are shops, cafes and restaurants, the niche businesses occupy lower floors and upper floors are usually still residential. The flexibility of space in tenements allows very small business to survive. As a result, the Lee Gardens area attracts shoppers and walkers from different sectors of the population.

Photo: Wikicommons.

The range of goods and services in the community serves a wide variety of people from different backgrounds: kaifong shopping for daily groceries, students lining up for bubble tea, office workers looking for quick lunches, families going for decent meals, teenagers chasing limited-edition sneakers and taitai seeking designer labels. The MTR, dozens of bus links and trams connecting Causeway Bay with the rest of the city mean the 15-minute concept also applies to the area’s residents going to other districts and vice versa. Daytime and evening, the streets are busy, energetic and charming. The ambience is ideal for flaneurs.

The Lee Gardens area is not without flaws. The lack of greenery, illegal parking at Pak Sha Road, congestion and air pollution in Lan Fong Road caused by minibuses are irritating for residents. However, as a whole, the area is safe for kaifong and walkers.  

The lessons of Covid-19 are that walking and biking are much safer than mass transport. Public transport is still important but the city should further ease walking and make biking in the metro area possible.

Post-pandemic, the world will benefit from our experience in having a textbook case of 15-minute city. Hongkongers will certainly benefit if our decision-makers look into ways to make the city more accessible and friendlier to walkers and bikers.

Unfortunately, instead of building on Hong Kong’s leading status on walkability and accessibility, and making the city even friendlier to pedestrians, the Transport Department came up with a proposal that would destroy the 15-minute city organically developed in the Lee Gardens area. In the name of improving traffic, it plans to redesign the pedestrian- friendly roads into vehicle-friendly ones, turning the residential and shopping district into a drive-through area for automobiles.

The proposed measures include:

  1. Making the narrow Yun Ping Road into a two-lane road for vehicles;
  2. In order to refit Yun Ping Road for vehicles, moving the taxi stand to the already congested Lan Fong Road;
  3. To encourage vehicles to use the quiet Pak Sha Road, the street will no longer be a designated pedestrian area in the evenings and on weekends,
  4. To help vehicles drive through the Lee Gardens area, Lee Garden Road will allow two-way traffic.

Transport officials are prioritising the interests of car owners over the rights and safety of the residents and others. The changes contradict their own colleagues’ initiative to promote walkability, as well as the intentions of those who designed the existing road network.

Photo: Wikicommons.

In 2017, the Transport Department launched a study “to formulate planning and design standards based on pedestrian-first principles for developing Hong Kong into a more walkable city.” Delayed by the pandemic, the study is still going on.

The fact that the Lee Gardens area is friendly to pedestrians is a result of meticulous design, such as one-way traffic and wider pavements at the intersections so vehicles are forced to reduce speed as they enter the area.

The proposed changes, if they go ahead, are destined to attract more traffic, creating congestion, air and noise pollution. Hong Kong will lose the textbook case of a 15-minute city, the ambience of the Lee Gardens area will be destroyed and traffic accidents will increase. 

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Chloe Lai

Chloe Lai is a journalist-turned-urbanist. She is a PhD in Comparative Literature. Archaeology of the present is her favour way to see the world and conduct researches. She is chairperson of the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage.