Island of the Walkers

By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, Lamma Island, Hong Kong.

Car-free Lamma Island is paradise alongside the hustle of Hong Kong.

Don’t try this while riding your bicycle. Close your eyes and imagine your neighbourhood without all the cars. In your mind’s eye, transport yourself there.

That’s what we did, and landed on the enchanted Lamma Island. It’s just forty minutes by ferry from Hong Kong, the densest place on earth where towers shoot up like a bamboo forest. One narrow tower next to another scrapes the sky: 20, 40, 80 stories up. And the population is also quickly going up: 6.5 million today, 8 million expected in 15 years.

Pedestrians in Hong Kong are herded off the street onto elevated walkways, jammed shoulder to shoulder in a heaving mob of humanity. Underground, during rush hour, a subway train snakes by every minute swallowing up thousands of people at a time. Sardines would find it cramped.

Back on street level, pedestrians scurry across intersections trying to avoid the honking red taxis. But there are signs of sanity – people walking everywhere; the Peak Tram, a funicular train that feels more like a roller coaster than a public conveyance; outdoor markets; vibrant street life; and colourful electric double-decker trams. They’re solid workhorses. For nearly a century they have silently shuttled the masses back and forth across Hong Kong Island.

The most unusual but elegant of public conveyances is the escalator to mid levels. From the centre of Hong Kong a series of covered, outdoor escalators snake up the mountain and take thousands of people higher than perhaps they’d care to walk. Such conveyances – escalators – are common in private buildings. Hong Kong proves that they can work well in public spaces too.

The drone of the beehive fades into a hum as we escape on the breezy ferry ride to Lamma. As the boat pulls away a postcard downtown view of Hong Kong appears. Roughly translated, Hong Kong means ‘fragrant harbour’. These days the fragrance is more likely a whiff of industrial effluent and sewage.

The harbour, the busiest in the world, is a carnival of watercraft. En route to Lamma a hundred ships flit by: tiny family sampans are adorned with laundry blowing in the breeze; oblong green and white Star ferries ply the harbour between Kowloon and Central; hulking international container ships from the seven seas laden with all manner of goods. And bads. If Greenpeace has its way the trans-shipment of hazardous waste through Hong Kong will soon be history.

Down below in the not-so-fragrant water a small remnant population of bubblegum-pink dolphins slowly succumbs to the churn of boat propellers and pollution of their watery home. A couple of hundred still survive in the region, but their population is dropping precipitously by up to 15% each year.

As the ferry snuggles up to the pier on Lamma Island the sound of shoes replaces the drone of cars. Far from the General Motors it is generously quiet. The only cars around are the toys that children play with. And no cars means lots of safe space for ambling kids.

Just 5,000 people live on this hilly 14 sq. km. island. Without roads there is room along the walking paths for scarlet hibiscus blossoms and towering banana plants. Clumps of jungle host hooting birds, moaning frogs, giant night snails and butterflies.

To be honest, there are a few dozen single seater “village vehicles” that motor around the concrete sidewalks carrying heavy construction material or garbage heading to the landfill. But the real grunt work is done by the hand carts hauling heavy goods around. Stores and restaurants are serviced by the four wheeled trolleys which can handle a thousand pounds no sweat.

But even paradise has wrinkles. Three towers, each 70 stories high, vent the exhaust from the mammoth coal fired power plant.

Three and a half million tonnes of coal are burned annually to supply electricity to Hong Kong. Ten thousand tonnes a day. Now the utility is planning to expand, and perhaps also build an incinerator to burn garbage. Developers are drooling to build more apartments. Can Lamma hold on it its car-freedom, its jungly walking paths, and its sense of solitude? Like elsewhere, the challenge is to spark a vision of a sustainable community. And these days the residents are organizing.

As the climate cooks and species disappear under pavement, it’s a relief to know that without cars other things happen. Perhaps Lamma Island could inspire other cities. Why not have car-free, island neighbourhoods within North American cities? With a mix of escalators, hand trolleys, shoe canvas, and wild green spaces our cities could be livable again. We know it. We’ve walked there, and it’s magic.

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