by Patricia Woo 
Higher-density living has been long explored as a means to contain urban sprawl. Past research has found many environmental benefits with this strategy – reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, using less land and reducing air pollution and water usage. However, high-density cities pose two major problems for transport planning: one relates to planning for facilities necessary for ease of movement of a large number of commuters within the city, and the other to the task of addressing pedestrian-vehicular conflicts that could arise in the competition for space in the constrained spaces in cities.
Planners and architects in various cities have been pre-occupied with these two problems for a long time. Visionary architects and planners have come up with imaginative pictures like the “multi-transit city” (Figure 1), where several skywalk systems criss-cross at different levels, and working in concert with each other.
If Corbett were still alive, he would not be too surprised to see his vision realized not in his home country, but in Hong Kong. What other place in the world is so squeezed for land to allow movement of 7 million people and all the vehicles that transport people and goods within and across the city?
The Hong Kong urban area is full of skywalks. As Robertson put it, a skywalk system is “a network of elevated interconnecting pedestrian walkways. The network consists of skybridges over the streets, second-storey corridors within buildings and various activity hubs.” In this way, a skywalk system can be viewed as an elevated plane of activities, rather than just a collection of unrelated bridges.
Skywalks are nothing Asian in origin though. In the 1960s and 1970s, a wave of skywalk construction took place in various parts of the US, particularly in cities with extreme cold weather such as Des Moines, Edmonton, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Paul. They were conceived primarily to provide pedestrians with a weather-proof walking environment. Later, other US cities with a milder climate, such as Charlotte, Dallas and Cincinnati, also took an interest in skywalk systems, viewing them as a useful redevelopment tool to reinvigorate downtowns. However, 40 years on, several US cities have decided to reverse the process, and cities like Cincinnati had 22 of its skywalk bridges around Fountain Square torn down. Other cities, like Des Moines, kept their skywalk systems but have put in more effort to encourage more street-level activities.
A comparative study by Robertson of the skywalk systems in five mid-western cities in the US revealed that while the usage rate was relatively high, there were indications that skywalks had brought negative impacts to street activities, and reduced the property value at ground level. With pedestrians removed from the streets on ground, sidewalks became empty, resulting in uncomfortably deserted downtown areas. Robertson noted that skywalks also contributed to the separation of people in the downtown on the basis of economic class. The decline of street activities in the downtowns of these cities had invited adverse media comments such as whether lifting pedestrians off the ground was “suicidal in the long run” .
In Hong Kong, however, skywalk systems seem to be thriving. Skywalk systems are usually planned to be closely integrated with a variety of activity hubs and residential projects. Hence, apart from the transport-related function, there is a wide variety of attractions as the user moves along the system. For example, in one skywalk system, the linked-up elements include residential complexes, two commercial buildings, two major shopping malls, two public gardens, an MTR station and a bus interchange. In another, the functional network comprises a town hall for cultural performances, four shopping malls, a hotel-cum-office building, a wet market, landscaped space for relaxation, an MTR station and a bus/minibus interchange.
Another surprising figure about this city is that about 90% of all journeys are undertaken by public transport. How do the two relate? Part of the secret is that pedestrian walkway systems actually play a complementary role in Hong Kong’s transport strategy. This was readily acknowledged by the city’s Secretary for Transport and Housing.
In fact, many skywalk systems in Hong Kong were carefully planned and executed by the Government through imposing conditions in land leases, so that buildings are required to be designed for connection above ground. They are such good solutions to the questions of most town planners who are scratching their heads in front of limited land, and transport planners who want seamless, traffic-light free roads. Then when we have dozens and hundreds of these, people started to ask how they impact on the built environment and on various aspects of the life of the local community. What happens when a significant part of your daily life is designed to be spent above ground?
So I spent 25 hours observing how people use the elevated space. I surveyed some 120 users of popular skywalk systems in town centres. I also talked to planners who had a hand in bringing these systems in, and had long interviews with residents who grow up in the area seeing the changes brought by skywalks.
I found that elevated space is heavily used, and actually liked by the people. More interestingly, I see some people chose not to use spaces for their intended functions, for example, designed podium gardens for relaxation and recreation, but would instead make use of “forgotten” spaces in the skywalk systems. For example, an elderly person was observed to be performing his morning exercises at the waiting area for elevators; a group of women took up part of a wide passageway for their Tai Chi sword dance practice; and parents spontaneously converted spaces decorated for festive celebration into a toddlers’ playground.
The face-to-face survey with 120 users revealed an overall favorable disposition towards skywalk systems in Hong Kong. Notwithstanding this, there appears to be a slight ambivalence as the value of vibrant street life was apparently still very much treasured by the local community. The survey revealed positive assessment from users that skywalk systems do bring about favorable lifestyle impacts. In descending order, respondents were positive of the following advantages brought forth by the skywalks, namely, “pedestrian convenience”, “pedestrian comfort” and “pedestrian safety”. Two other lifestyle impacts are significant. On one hand, respondents reported a propensity to increase consumption (“I have bought more”), which may be considered positive from the viewpoint of real estate performance and welcomed by the property owners and shop tenants. On the other, a more beneficial incidental outcome seems to be the increase in amount of walking in daily life, which is good from a “healthy city” perspective.
Community users, however, still value a vibrant street life. Almost 40% of the responses thought shop-lined streets were “more comfortable” than skywalk systems.
The study also highlights that the managed nature of skywalk systems, especially those by private entities, might have brought about social differentiation in the use of space. Respondents of the survey viewed that the diminished vibrancy of street life has discouraged certain segments of people from using them. This unintended emphasis of the social divide is manifested in two ways, first, by the conscious effort of property managements to keep out “undesirable” people and behaviors (the “inverse prison” concept described by Voyce); and second, by the unconscious creation of physical and psychological barriers for the poor to enter.
Another related social issue which surfaced in the study is that skywalk systems are perceived somewhat negatively as an urban form that promotes consumerism.
The economic and environmental benefits of skywalk systems as a planning strategy for high-density living lie in its effect of releasing scarce city land for better uses. For example, by locating a bus terminus beneath the podiums, one more piece of land could be available as public open space. The planning question is whether these public open spaces and the adjoining skywalk systems complement each other in effect. The study affirms that a stronger connectivity between the elevated spaces and those at grade would have induced greater people flow, and hence maximizes the utility of both.
What can be learned from people’s feedback on skywalk systems? I would say it demonstrates the need for cross-sectoral collaboration, such as planning, transport, social policy and local economy institutions. In a high density environment, co-ordinated planning and sensitive handling of people’s issues is paramount for success.
In particular, from a social angle, skywalk systems can be harnessed to bring about profound and positive impacts to people’s lives. With good planning and design, traditionally unconnected areas can be brought to the networks. Before introducing skywalks, the social values must be understood first. If the strength of skywalks (efficiency, convenience, connectivity) do not tie in with the values of the community, and offer people obvious benefits, they would turn out to be an eyesore rather than an asset.
I think a multi-disciplinary team of town planners, architects, transport planners, urban designers, landscape architects, sociologists and experts of the local economy should work together with the affected community from the early stage of planning. Sensitivity to community values and usage patterns will help planners to decide how skywalk/ground permeability could be addressed, and what kind of edge could work best between a skywalk system and the rest of the locality. The experience in Hong Kong shows that provided concerns are addressed, the benefits of skywalk systems would outweigh the drawbacks in a high-density environment, and become a valuable tool of intervention.
 This article is based on Patricia Woo’s thesis “Assessing Skywalk Systems as a Response to High Density Living in Hong Kong”, supervised by Dr Lai Choo Malone-Lee, National University of Singapore.