A Badly Needed Green Lung for Hong Kong

Every day, a river of trams, cars, trucks, double-decked buses and minibuses pours down Des Voeux Road, one of Hong Kong’s most important commercial arteries, a bustling thoroughfare in the heart of Central, the business district.

But the think tank Civic Exchange and the Hong Kong Institute of Planners would like to radically alter the character of the street, named for Hong Kong’s 10th governor, Sir George William Des Voeux, with a revolutionary plan to fully pedestrianize a 1 kilometer stretch, closing it off to all motorized traffic. Only the city’s colorful trams and pedestrians would remain.

Benson Poon, one of the senior planners involved in the proposal, acknowledged in a telephone interview with Asia Sentinel that the plan is “without precedent.” To take vehicles off such a street would be remarkable under any circumstances, but is doubly so in one of the most congested areas of one of the most densely populated cities in the world, a city that has long prioritized development over all other concerns. That its denizens could use some green space goes without saying. The Central district is so densely packed during business hours that most foot traffic takes place overhead, on second-floor walkways that connect scores of buildings.

The government, however, appears mildly interested. "The Transport Department welcomes proposals aiming at improving the pedestrian environment. We are now reviewing the Hong Kong Institute of Planners' proposal and will provide our view to relevant Bureaus for their consideration as appropriate," a department spokesman told Asia Sentinel in an email.

It is obviously highly speculative whether this plan could ever get off the ground. Hong Kong, after all, is a city dedicated to ruthless efficiency in the pursuit of money, from the lowliest newspaper kiosk operator to the richest oligarch, and it has been throughout the 156 years of British rule that preceded the current government. It is questionable whether either the government or the establishment would countenance giving up so much of one of the city’s most important arteries.

Nonetheless, the planners hope to widen pedestrian walkways to fill most existing road space and to “green” the entire stretch by replacing the concrete underneath the road’s tram lines with grass. They say the plan would turn the road with the poorest air-quality in Central and not a single tree into something that could begin to make Central a more desirable place to do business in, living up to Hong Kong’s self-designated status as “Asia’s World City,” as well as greatly improving air quality for the thousands of people who pour into the business district on a daily basis.

One major spur for the plan, the authors of the proposal claim, is a fear that “Hong Kong is standing still” amid a general advance in greening up Asian cities, with Shanghai’s restoration of Nanjing Road and Japan’s landscaping of its light rail as prime examples. Surprisingly, however, , Hong Kong ranks second on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Asian Green Cities Index, behind only Singapore, mainly because some 70 percent of the territory is given over to country parks. As the planners note, the Central district is a tangle of concrete canyons sided by skyscrapers.

The plan was first put forward in 2000, when the Hong Kong government accepted that it was feasible, but declined to take it further. However a confluence of circumstances has provided a “unique” opportunity to enact it. It includes the upcoming opening of the Central-Wanchai Bypass in 2017, which would divert much of the traffic that now passes through the business district to a thoroughfare along the side of the harbor.

The city’s extensive light rail system, the MTR, which moves tens of thousands of people into Central every day, is being extended, and Hong Kong’s bus routes are being reorganized. All of these developments would ease the traffic on Des Voeux Road, greatly minimizing the disruption. Nevertheless, even the planners of the project admit that “in the short term” there could be “small issues” with traffic.

While there have yet been no formal talks with the government, informal discussions with the Transport Bureau have been set back by a desire for more detailed assessments of the impact on traffic. The planners remain “hopeful,” they say, and maintain that the obstacles with the Transport Bureau are “bureaucratic” and not major.

However, they are also looking for support elsewhere, such as with the Planning, Development and Environment Bureaus. While Poon and his associates, can’t frame even a rough cost for the project, they maintain that it would not be an important factor in the government’s decision on the project.

Despite the Transport Bureau’s official statement that it is “committed to putting more emphasis on the interests of pedestrians” the only full pedestrianizations that have yet been implemented in Central, in Theatre Lane and Chiu Yung Street, have been tiny in comparison.

Poon describes the public response as “99 percent supportive” and cites the overwhelmingly positive press coverage as evidence. In discussions with the District Council two weeks ago, support was almost total, markedly different from 2000, when the response was far more lukewarm. Poon attributes this to greater concerns about air quality and a far more engaged public, showing exactly how important an issue pollution has become to many local residents.

Should this become official policy, the initial stages of diverting traffic onto Connaught Road on the Sheung Wan side could happen almost immediately, even before the Central Wanchai Bypass is completed in 2017 and, by the time the Sha Tin-Central Link is completed in 2022, the final stages of the project could be implemented. Although nothing has yet been confirmed, as concern over air quality grows, previously radical proposals such as this may begin to seem ever more reasonable.

Archie Hall is an Asia Sentinel intern