A nightime view of Des Voeux Road Central, Hong Kong. Flickr/Aapo Haapanen

A coalition is bringing back a 15-year-old proposal to make part of downtown green, with plans to turn it into a playground or urban forest.

It didn’t surprise Simon Ng that Hong Kong’s Town Planning Board overwhelmingly rejected a proposal last week to scrap part of Hong Kong’s historic tramway as a way to ease congestion. The outpouring of support for the 111-year-old streetcars, however, was unexpected.

The backlash to the proposal did more than put the city’s public transit in the spotlight, says Ng, chief research officer at the Hong Kong public policy think tank Civic Exchange.* It also rekindled interest in a nearly 15-year-old plan to make one of Hong Kong’s busiest stretches of road pedestrian friendly and car free.

Des Voeux Road Central sits in the central business district of Hong Kong Island, where a mix of office buildings, small shops, pedestrians, and vehicular traffic crowd the streets every day. Not surprisingly, it also has the highest level of air pollution in the city, with a concentration of air pollutants near 55 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a recent report from Civic Exchange and Hong Kong University. That falls under the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” category on the Air Quality Index. The area suffers from the “street canyon effect,” in which high-rises on either side of the road trap in air pollutants left behind by heavy traffic.

To make the air a little more breathable, a coalition of architects, environmentalists, and nonprofits like Civic Exchange* has proposed a plan to redesign Des Voeux Road Central so that—except for emergency cases—the only vehicles allowed there would be trams, which run on electricity. Buses and cars would be rerouted to the adjacent Connaught Road near the waterfront, and to the Central-Wan Chai bypass, to be completed in 2017. An upcoming subway line connecting Hong Kong Island to the mainland will also help ease traffic. As part of the plan, walking space would also be widened, and much of the concrete could get replaced with grass.

The initiative is gaining momentum now, but that wasn’t always the case. First introduced by the Hong Kong Institute of Planners in 2000, it has sat dormant for more than a decade. “At that time, the government didn’t react to the proposal at all,” Ng says. Neither did the business sector, which didn’t immediately see the benefits of pedestrianizing streets. “The professional groups didn’t have the time and resources to go and engage all these stakeholders, so the proposal sort of died.”

Six early concepts of how to transform Des Voeux Road Central. (Jeffrey Johnson/Columbia University)

It wasn’t until 2014 that the coalition breathed life back into the proposal—this time with updated designs, a stronger focus on cutting air pollution, and a detailed feasibility test. In September of this year, the Des Voeux Road Central Initiative officially launched with a press conference featuring a panel of domestic and international experts to parse out the logistics.

Among the panelists were architects from Columbia University, whom the coalition asked to come up potential design ideas. “The current project has to do with ... how we can turn that street into something very interesting and into a new landmark for Hong Kong,” says Jeffrey Johnson, an architect who leads Columbia University’s Asia Megacities Lab. “That’s where we come in with our expertise.”

So far, they’ve come up with six concepts, inspired by projects like Denmark’s Superkilen and New York’s High Line. One idea is to develop a playground for kids and adults, another is to turn the street into an “energetic” carnival—similar to Times Square in New York. A third is to turn the stretch of road into a urban forest. Other concepts include a galleria, street theater, and an artscape.

The conceptual drawings will be on display for public feedback in December. The idea, says Johnson, isn’t so much to narrow down a design—the project is still in its early stages—but to engage the public. “You have a very diverse group of people using that space daily,” he tells CityLab. “They need to feel as though they have some stake in the project, and our part is to throw something out there that people can start to talk about at a different level … so it’s not an abstract conversation just about loading trucks and where the cars go.”

The revival of the project comes at a time when big cities in the rest of the world have already started to turn streets into pedestrian-friendly spaces. The way Ng sees it, Hong Kong, as a major Asian city, has some catching up to do.

“It’s interesting, because we use a lot of public transit, but when it comes to city planning we still put a lot of emphasis on vehicles,” he says. “I think it’s about time to change that mentality.”

*Correction: An earlier version mistakenly named the think tank Civic Exchange as Civic Engagement. The error has been corrected.

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