Sidewalk seams

There is something distinctively “Hong Kong” about the level of consideration that goes into designing the flow of traffic and people around the “seams” that traverse the urban fabric, whether such a seam is created through the building/repair of a new structure or the defense of space around an existing one.


Whether deployed on the basis of the anticipated length of pedestrian flow disruption, forecasted frequency and intensity of the disruption, or something else entirely, on multiple occasions I’ve seen pairs of pedestrian crossing signals – akin to what one would find on the corner of a busy intersection – built into the ceiling of the scaffolding that covers the sidewalk next to a construction site. With one, there was even a projector that beamed “safe to pass” down on to the ground, likely out of deference to any pedestrians overly engrossed in a conversation or smartphone. 

When a truck needs to exit or enter the construction site and cross over the sidewalk, the signals change from green to red, and construction workers step in to assist with pausing pedestrian traffic while the trucks make their move. 


These indicators are striking due to the level of consideration they embody. Installed by the temporary interlopers of construction crews, these touchpoints seek to gently manage the behaviors and expectations of the longstanding daily users and occupants of this stretch of sidewalk as they engage in work that will most likely permanently alter how this space (if not the entire surrounding neighborhood) is used.


Framed cynically/practically, these sidewalk crossing indicators function as “awkwardness prevention devices” around what could be a potentially tense encounter between time-constrained pedestrians and the construction worker charged with temporarily suspending the endlessly unfolding sidewalk ballet so as to let a cement truck pull out of the construction site: “Sorry, it’s not me who’s stopping you from making your subway so you can get to work on time, it’s this crossing indicator and this cement truck. I’m just here to protect you!”

Framed optimistically, these signals feel like an attempt to thoughtfully mediate what could easily devolve into conflict around how these critical urban sidewalk “seams” work. They reshape familiar mental models of street corner crossing signals to strike a balance between the many potential overlapping uses of a sidewalk. After all, the same space must be prepared to accommodate trucks piled high with steel beams, rushing commuters, shuffling octogenarian market-goers, and children learning to ride bicycles (ideally not all at once).


This solution stands as a more permanent gap imposed upon a sidewalk than that of the more temporary seam created by the need to manage traffic into and out of a construction site. In this case, the gap has been created in front of a construction material shop located next to a popular ramen restaurant in Wanchai.

While having a crowd milling in front of one’s store all day might well prove a boon to neighboring shops with more overlapping markets, there’s probably more tension than there is harmony between customers in the market for construction materials, and those in active pursuit of the next great bowl of ramen. In this case, the runaway ramen queue has escaped the bounds of the shop it is for, and taken off down the street, disrupting the flows of both pedestrians and potential customers.


To claim space for more of his own customers and allow visibility for his storefront goods display, the owner of this construction material shop has improvised an intervention to reshape how people line up. An action that might feel aggressive or excessive elsewhere feels, in this dense section of Wanchai neighborhood, like an in-bounds reaction to the numerous design challenges presented by Hong Kong’s space constraints (and the smiley faces on the signs help as well).


While on a walk this past weekend with someone who knows this neighborhood deeply through her ongoing placemaking work there as a part of Neighborhood Innovation Lab, she shared that residents of Wanchai have about .7 square meters of public space per capita, as opposed to the Hong Kong standard of 2 square meters – which is approximately the size of a typical coffin (as well as is its own separate type of housing in Hong Kong).

Both types of seams in the sidewalk reflect the micro-shifts happening within a neighborhood in different ways – one using a more formal mechanism of the “crosswalk” crossing indicator adapted into a new use that monitors not just how someone can cross the street, but how someone can traverse their neighborhood sidewalk. The other intervention out front of the construction materials shop makes an assertive space claim to preserve the visibility of their store and goods display using safety cones, poles, and brightly-colored paper.


Two different approaches to the design challenge of how to shift the highly engrained behavior of how someone walks down a particular stretch of sidewalk, each also reflects tensions, and foreshadows the shifting narrative of this particular slice of the city – starting with its sidewalks.

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