Sunday, 7 March 2010

Streets and post-streets: Hong Kong's contrasting urban forms

Hong Kong, due to its geography and its particular political and economic development, is one the most densely populated cities in the world. This density is evident in the glittering skyscrapers and endless concrete apartment blocks forming the backdrop to every tourist's holiday snaps.

One would think that such density would result in a uniform urban form, one that pragmatically acquiesced to the demands of thousands of people living on top of each other. On the surface this seems true: as any visitor would attest, almost all of Hong Kong can be typified by huddled buildings, crowded footpaths and congested roads. However further examination reveals that even in this forest of skyscrapers there are varying urban forms which respond differently to the demands of extreme density. This variety can be best understood by looking at two areas of the city which, in terms of urban form, are polar opposites to which all other areas can be placed between. These two areas are Central (and surrounds), on Hong Kong Island itself and Mong Kok, on the Kowloon Peninsula.

The area made up of Central, the Mid-Levels and Soho (which I'll just call Central) is an infrastructure playground. Snaking between the soaring skyscrapers is a maze-like network of pedestrian over- and under passes which themselves weave around a network of motorway flyovers. On Hong Kong island, the response to the congestion problem has been to layer the transport network so that volume is spread vertically, minimising conflict between transport modes. This response can be attributed partly to the island's topography. From the harbour, there is only a small area of flat land before there is a dramatic slope upward to the peak of the island. This sloping topography means that ground level for one building is third floor level to another one downhill. This relationship meant that it made sense to build walkways directly between buildings rather than relying on the steep and undulating street network for circulation. The tendency for redevelopment on Hong Kong island to occur in large chunks also meant that it was easier to plan for these connections as architects and developers had control of large holdings of land. It would be much more difficult to connect many smaller disparate buildings all owned and built at different times.

Overpasses in Central

Pedestrian and vehicle traffic are separated onto their dedication channels

Another overpass

The outcome of this multi-layered pattern of development is an urban form which has transcended the traditional street. Getting from building A to building B in Central is often a matter of navigating pedestrian overpasses and tunnels, hopping from one shopping mall to the next, often without setting foot on a street. In fact, one loses the sense of where ground level is. A train station may be connected to a basement shopping centre which may connect to the second floor of a nearby office block which connects to an overpass to a residential complex etc.

In Central it is almost possible to experience the city without the street, one might say that it is has become post-street. A obvious manifestation of this idea is the Mid-Levels escalator. which connects low-lying Central with the Mid-Levels residential district further uphill. Built at several metres above ground level, the escalator is designed to avoid the winding and narrow streets below. It is an open admission of the limits of the traditional street network in an area of extreme density and difficult topography.

The Mid-levels escalator

In Mong Kok however, the traditional street network is all there is. The streets are laid out in a simple grid on which many old and dilapidated buildings sit. The buildings are on much smaller lots resulting in a fine-grained urban form contrasting with the big block development on Hong Kong Island. What this means is that almost every building relies on the traditional street frontage for access. There are very few connections between buildings which avoid the street thus creating a situation where almost all pedestrian circulation must occur at street level. In a place which is said to be the most densely populated on earth, this means extreme levels of pedestrian congestion. Mong Kok is nuts.

Street level Mong Kok

Buildings on small lots results in an urban environment with a "fine grain"

A Mong Kok street in the early morning

Despite the congestion, it is actually easier to understand Mong Kok as a pedestrian. To use the jargon, it is easier to read because it is more legible. Getting from building A to building B is conceptually simpler: you walk out the front of one place, walk along the street, then walk through the front of the next place. Places are connected by streets. You don't have to use an overpass which becomes an underpass which becomes a shopping mall which becomes another shopping mall. Instead, getting around Mong Kok involves you being inside, then walking outside then going back inside. "Ground level" is still a useful concept.

In my opinion, this reliance on the street results in a more vibrant and vital urban experience. The overhead walkways and tunnels of Central seem cold and sterile in comparison. They are designed only to get hoards of people from one place to another. Although the streets of Mong Kok perform this function as well, they are mostly un-programmed public spaces, blank canvasses on which a variety of social interactions can occur. This is why the best street markets are in Mong Kok and why street dining is such an exciting and memorable experience.

Temple Street night market as seen by a streetside dining table.

This is not to say that Central doesn't have its charms, it is a vibrant place in its own way, but Central and Mong Kok represent two differing extremes of the Hong Kong urban experience. This differentiation is a result of the ways in which pedestrian and vehicle traffic is managed. Mong Kok is reliant on conventional intersecting streets on which pedestrians and vehicles must negotiate each other. Although this approach may struggle to cope with the high volumes of traffic involved, it encourages interaction and creates an exciting urban experience. While in Central, although the street is still fundamental, it has been augmented by more specialised networks which take pedestrians and vehicles off the street and onto overpasses and motorways. This dispersal of traffic away from the traditional street means that the the very idea of the street no longer figures so heavily in the urban experience as it does elsewhere.

Who needs the street?

As more large scale redevelopment reaches Mong Kok (see Langham Place, for instance), it will be interesting to see if the same approach is taken to managing circulation. One hopes that if this is the case, it will not be at the expense of Mong Kok's vibrant streets.

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