USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program


Westerners tend to pass judgment on the accessibility policies of Asian urban societies.  Coming from a people that has been taught that every single individual must be physically able to participate in any given activity (no matter how likely he is to desire to do so or how his participation in said activity would better society) the Western tendency is to criticize Asia within an ethical domain.

The conditions in Hong Kong are as such that it is unaffordable for the needs of the few [physically handicapped] to trump those of the collective.  Land value is so high that every square centimeter allotted to sidewalk width is cutting millions of dollars out of potential revenues.  Admittedly, I had a problem with this at first, because in my mind the implication of this was that the people of Hong Kong value financial gain over their fellow man.  However, I have come to realize that the issue is more complicated than that.  In addition to having a high earning potential, land in Hong Kong is precious because the city, like so many Asian cities today, is so densely populated.

Central–Mid-levels escalators, Hong Kong

Any opportunity to move travelers in the z direction—that is to lift pedestrians off the streets and onto elevated walkways, or lower them into they subway system (MTR)—means that the street traffic can flow more smoothly.  And in a city like Hong Kong, where the public bus system is so successful, letting the vehicular traffic exist on its own horizontal plane is in everyone’s best interest.  True, the z movement in Hong Kong is not always handicapped accessible.  But without it, and with wider sidewalks and more parking spaces needed, the city would not work the way it does.  Hong Kong is kept functioning by its fast-paced movement and innovative infrastructure (such as the 800 meter Central–Mid-levels escalators that can take a pedestrian across town in twenty minutes), so any effort made to accommodate the handicapped population would render the entire city useless.

So is the integrity of Hong Kong’s policies based on American standards even a valid debate?  When we bring this issue under the ethical umbrella, we as Westerners fail to see the bigger picture.  We are so focused on the way this issue makes us ‘feel’ that we become blind to the facts.  One indisputable truth is that we cannot, in fact, accommodate every single individual within every sector of society; but ADA laws requires us to put forth a great effort, and at huge economic expense.  Moreover, in the United States, it has become commonplace to take legal action against one another for the most frivolous of reasons.  As such, instead of working toward the evolution of the greater good (that is, on the urban scale), architects and developers have adopted a policy of risk management.  This is not to say that having our soap and paper towel dispensers placed at 48 inches off of the floor is compounding our highway congestion, or that requiring less than five pounds of force be needed to operate said fixtures is preventing us from adopting valuable infrastructural mechanisms.  What is true, however, is that ADA ramp and minimum width requirements, to name a few, have prevented the inception of innovation like that which is taking place in Hong Kong.

In America, we tend to employ a strong sense of entitlement.  In spite of the fact that physically handicapped Americans comprise only 8.2 percent of the population, they maintain a great breadth and specificity of ‘rights’.  In our increasingly touchy society, developers working under the heavy threat of lawsuits if they violate these ‘rights’ refuse to take risks that—yes—could possibly fail, but also have the potential to make our cities more vibrant and efficient.  As a result, what doesn’t exist should, and what does exist is static.  Moreover, American entitlement extends to our understanding of space.  Because we have vast amounts of land on which to build, we have developed a pattern of urban sprawl, especially in Los Angeles.  But are we entitled to ‘sprawl’?  Is it in our best interest?

‘Sprawl’ may be partly responsible for our sense of entitlement toward ease of mobility and personal space.  The dense Hong Kong population, compounded with the limited buildable land, has demanded that infrastructure be put in place to get the majority—not the minority—from point a to point b with maximum efficiency; conversely, the reality that we Los Angelinos get in our personal vehicles to go almost anywhere, along with the fact that we can fire up the engine in the car that’s five yards away from us at a moment’s notice, has indoctrinated us with the belief that the complete mobility of the individual—enjoyed independently from that of our fellow man—is the best way of life.  But are we completely and independently mobile?  Or are we in reality slaves to the traffic, letting the threat of freeway congestion make our decisions for us.  Nevertheless, the way Los Angeles infrastructure and programmatic layout has been established, we do in fact have no other choice, so the entitled approach to accessibility holds steadfast.

The unilateral way that Westerners understand Asian accessibility is therefore inadequate in and of itself.  As outsiders, we are not in a position to point fingers; inaccessibility is not an ethical issue, as we might want it to be, but a necessary evil.  There is no question that accessibility is a dilemma in Hong Kong, but before we leverage heavy criticism we must realize that it is a Hong Konger problem, not an American one, and that Hong Kongers can just as easily criticize us for our infamous traffic congestion.  In Hong Kong, oneself is his primary means of mobility, whereas in Los Angeles (and not all but most other American cities) one’s car is.  Thus, if we cannot relate to mobility of the average person, we should not pass judgment on that of the handicapped person either.



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One Response

  1. AL says:

    While I agree with you that having over abundance of “law” in the name of offering equal opportunity to all could stifle progress while diminish self reliance and reinforce a sense of societal entitlement, lest not forget the phenomena you’ve witnessed and experienced in HK are largely due to the severe density of the city. With such density, there bound to be social repercussions be they physical or mentald.

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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