Hong Kong / The commercial motivation behind the first footbridge in Central (1965)

Hong Kong / The commercial motivation behind the first footbridge in Central (1965)

In the past, footbridges in Hong Kong were provided mainly for pedestrian traffic along steep terrains or over streams. However, since the 1960s, with the rapid increase in population and economic development, there was a need to separate vehicle and human traffic to improve road safety and traffic flow capacity. Thus, the first grade separated footbridge across Leighton Road near Victoria Park was constructed in 1963.

As introduced by SPUR, “Two dimensional planning on the horizontal should give way to planning in four dimensions, introducing the element of the vertical (buildings in height) and the element of time (in transportation and programming of areas for building).” 4D-planning is an ideal solution to overpopulation within limited land in Asian cities, which is brought into practice in Hong Kong where the aboveground and underground pedestrian network is connected by abundant footbridges and tunnels, giving most convenience and complexity to the city.

golden-mile-urban-by-spur2      mapping of bridge today
Figure1.Golden mile urban by SPUR              Figure2.Central Elevated walkway system, drawn by author

The Central Elevated Walkway must be one of the most developed and successful footbridge system in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, it is not the outcome of purely top-down planning. Instead, it was a bottom-up process where commercial motivation was the driven force at the very beginning. As written above, the unique blending of cultures and relative political stability in Hong Kong during the 1950s resulted in economic development and a burgeoning tourist trade. The development of hotels and buildings with shopping arcades led to the problem of vehicular and pedestrian congestion in commercial center. Compared to the government, it is more urgent for the private companies to come up with a solution. They need to guarantee their customers’ accessibility to their shopping malls, so that they can make more profits. Thus, the idea arose within Hongkong Land to connect two of its prime properties, Prince’s Building and The Mandarin Hotel. And an enclosed footbridge, elevated high above the bustling street, was constructed and open to the public in 1965. As both buildings were under planning and development, the footbridge is also incorporated as a main circulation route. This footbridge provided a link for the luxury hotel guests to walk across the adjacent building that accommodated three levels of retail without leaving the sheltered and air-conditioned interior space free from vehicular noise and pollution, which was proved to be a great success.

bridge-connect-prince-building-and-mandarin-hotel
Figure3. the footbridge connecting Prince’s Building and Mandarin Hotel

The smooth implement of this footbridge is closely related to the unique position of Hongkong Land, namely the company owned several commercial buildings adjacent to each other and separated by just 3 roads; Chater Road, Des Voeux Road and Ice House Street. Given that the footbridge was an untried concept, it would be hard and time-consuming to obtain an agreement between different owners of the buildings. While for HKL, they could have innovative proposal of footbridge with more control and less interest dispute. Meanwhile, since the proposal could reduce vehicular and pedestrian congestion on ground level, it is fully supported by the government. Similarly, we can imagine how much barrier there would be if this is a top-down decision to build a footbridge, inserted into the existing commercial buildings.

Reference:
EI-Khoury, Robbins.”Chapter 7: Hong Kong – Aformal Urbanism”. Shaping the City: Studies in History, Theory and Urban Design. Routledge. 2013
Robinson, Antony. “Beyond Icons: Developing Horizontally in the Vertical Realm”. CTBUH 2014 Shanghai Conference Proceedings.
Robinson, Safarik,”Learning from 50 years of Hong Kong Skybridges”.CTBUH Journal . 2014 Issue III
Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group. “Editorial” and “The Future of Asian Cities”. SPUR 65-67, pp. 1-3,4-12. 1967.

1 Comment on “Hong Kong / The commercial motivation behind the first footbridge in Central (1965)

  1. I find it interesting to see how projects initiated by several commercial groups could eventually transform and shape a city. It reminds me of Jane Jacob’s article on decentralized planning, such that everyone takes a part in how the city plan. The footbridge system is an example well illustrating how such bottom-up urban planning can be achieved.
    I am also very curious to know how people first reacted to the idea of such a massive almost-infrastructure-like footbridge system in the city. While we are very used to it nowadays and think it is completely normal, how did people think about it at the beginning?
    Apart from that, I think it would also be interesting to see how the shops on ground level reacted to the footbridges. One urban problem often discussed in Hong Kong is that the elevated ways are discouraging people from walking on the ground, where individual shops are located. Because footbridges are connecting shopping malls from one to another, people hardly walk pass small shops standing alone in streets. This makes small shop owners even harder to make money, due to the reduced flow of people. One evidence of such problem is Tsuen Wan. The district is well-known for the great number of bridges it has, each connecting to one mall to another. There is even a fun saying on the internet that one can walk all the way from Tsuen Wan to Tai Wo Hau without touching the ground. It would be mind-provoking to see whether similar problems happened back then and how the government dealt with it.

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