On the Waterfront: Kwun Tong, Ma On Shan

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Second in a series of three posts about Hong Kong’s waterfront. Read the first post here.

The Kwun Tong promenade opened last year on an industrial stretch of waterfront facing the runway of the old Kai Tak Airport. It’s very short — just 200 metres — but the plan is to continue expanding it until it joins whatever will be built along the waterfront of Kai Tak, which is on the verge of being redeveloped into a large residential and commercial area.

So far, what exists is promising. The design language takes its cues from the surrounding industrial blocks, with plenty of exposed steel that goes nicely with the wood boardwalk. Water vapour is released from vents inside the boardwalk, which is a nice cinematic touch, especially on a hazy winter day. On one end of the promenade is a sculpture inspired by the large bricks of paper that once occupied this stretch of waterfront, waiting to be loaded onto barges and shipped to China for recycling.

There isn’t much to do here but sit and admire the view. If the rest of the promenade turns out to be like this, it would be a problem. A whole kilometre of it would feel one-dimensional. But for the moment, it’s fine, because this is one of just a couple of places in East Kowloon where you can actually get close to the water.

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Like Kwun Tong, Ma On Shan is home to one of Hong Kong’s most recent waterfront promenades. It runs for 3.2 kilometres along the shores of Tolo Harbour, a large body of water in the northeastern New Territories. Not only is it Hong Kong’s longest public promenade, it is one of the few to include a bicycle path along its entire length, making it both a popular destination for Sunday cyclists as well as an important transportation corridor for local residents who use bicycles to go to school, train stations and markets.

The promenade is very straightforward in its design. A steel railing lines the water, with the occasional steps down to provide access to boats. Next to that is a broad walkway with room for both strollers and joggers. Then there is a layer of greenery that occasionally includes public toilets, playgrounds, exercise areas and self-contained jogging tracks with a soft surface. Finally, beyond that is the bike path and a sidewalk. Sometimes there is a road running next to the promenade; other times the buildings abut it directly.

The view from Ma On Shan is spectacular: mountains all around, boats and the occasional wakeboarder slicing through the water. The promenade itself is rather boring. Last spring, I walked its entire length on a sunny afternoon, and after about twenty minutes I was itching for some distraction. Unfortunately, there are no retail kiosks, no cafés from which to enjoy the view. There isn’t much access to the water, either, beyond those few steps I mentioned before. It quickly becomes monotonous — a nice place to speed through on a bike, but not much else.

Speaking of bikes: the integration of the cycle path with the rest of the promenade leaves a lot to be desired. Hong Kong’s official bike path design standards call for a minimum 3.5 metre width and strict separation between the path and any adjacent areas, usually by way of fences or big planters. Thick bollards are placed in the middle of the path at every single junction with a road or pedestrian crossing. They’re meant to slow cyclists down, but they’re horrendously dangerous, and if you aren’t paying attention — and many Hong Kong cyclists are not — you could easily ram into one and flip off your bike.

Bicycles are becoming increasingly popular as a cheap, time-efficient, healthy and environmentally-friendly way to get around. That’s true both globally and locally; all the evidence suggests that more and more people in Hong Kong are riding bikes on a regular basis. But if cycling is ever going to become a safe and practical way to get around, bikes will need to be better integrated into public spaces like waterfront promenades. The Ma On Shan bike path is better than nothing, but it’s clumsy and far too rigid. It creates a barrier between the promenade and adjacent areas. A far better approach would be that of Vancouver’s Seawall, which separates cyclists and pedestrians by a simple grassy median and, where there isn’t enough space, a slight difference in grade.

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This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday November 18 2011at 12:11 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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