Building a flexible public environment
By Ir Prof Kin Wai Michael SIU

Today in Hong Kong, streets are not solely for pedestrians and cars; they also serve both fixed and dynamic functions. Local residents must be quite familiar with these events: Chinese New Year night parade, Lunar New Year and National Day Firework Displays, marathons, rallies, etc... not to mention other events of a slightly smaller scale.

During these events, many thousands of people gather on the streets to participate or just take a look. Every time, organisers, the Hong Kong Police, Highways Department (HyD), Transport Department as well as other related government departments have to close the roads to all vehicular traffic and re-route and implement crowd management measures. Better control of the crowd and traffic requires not only a large amount of manpower, but also "street furniture" such as bollard systems that need to be adjusted. Yet, the existing bollard and railings are so inflexible that limited or even no movement can be made.

The fixed bollards and railings are good on normal days when vehicular traffic and pedestrians are clearly separated. During special occasions, these old-fashioned bollards and railings may, sometimes, be an obstacle to the organisers, participants, volunteers, government disciplinary service staff, other government staff and the general public. No one can move the bollards and railings, nor can they rearrange them to cope with the flow of the crowd and traffic, which may sometimes be out of the expectation of the organisers or government staff.

Movable railings may need to be set up or existing bollards and railings completely removed. However, this dismantling is often difficult because dismounting the traditional permanent bollards and railings is a complicated task that may take one to several days and needs a fair number of workers and tools. Most of the time, the dismantling also implies the waste of a certain number of existing bollards and railings as well as the complications and high-cost of re-paving the walkway and reinstallation work.

Flexible bollards
Since 2000, the research and design team of the Public Design Lab of the School of Design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University has carried out a series of urban studies and product analysis on street furniture in more than 20 densely populated metropolitan cities, including New York, London, Paris, Barcelona, Vancouver, Sydney, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh and Kathmandu.

The research aims to identify the pros and cons of existing street furniture designs in meeting dynamic and changing urban needs and lifestyles. Besides the Hong Kong research team, researchers from MIT, UC Berkeley, the National University of Singapore, Tsinghua University and the Central Academy of Fine Art also participated in the studies at different stages. Support has come from governments, NGOs and industry and research funding bodies such as the Fulbright Scholarship and the Asian Scholarship Foundation.

The research endeavours to reveal the different reactions, comments and expectations of policymakers, professionals, executives and managers, residents (including people with special needs), and visitors. The research further aims to carry out a balanced exploration and discussion on the topic, and explore the feasibility, possibilities and directions of applying a FlexiDesign approach towards street furniture design.

Based on the research findings, a new concept, Flexibol, for bollard and railing design has been generated. The new design is expected to serve the needs of densely populated urban areas, in particular those in metropolitan cities in Asia.

Flexibol is a flexible bollard system designed to cope with the new and continuously changing needs of densely populated urban areas. The system features specially designed interlocking components and mounting mechanism. Major parts include the base, bollard, chain-connectors and chains or railings. Once the base is installed beneath the ground, the system can be installed and removed within minutes by commonly-used tools like a screw driver and spanner. With the common and interchangeable components parts, it has the flexibility to fit different types of railing panels, railings, bars and chains, either one type at a time or in combination. All chain-connectors and other attachable components to the bollards are stored with the bollards and the mounting mechanism. No additional or external components are required during the set-up procedure and no extra storage space for these parts is required, design features that provide convenience for special as well as routine work.

When the whole set is removed, no extruded parts remain on the ground. The top surface of the mounting mechanism's cover is flush to the ground. It causes no danger to pedestrians, drivers or workers on the streets. This is a breakthrough in the design of removable bollard systems as there is no similar product available on the market to date.

In addition, Flexibol overcomes the limitations of the existing old-fashioned, vertically erected bollard systems, which are difficult to fit in the shallow paved roads and walkways common in Asian cities, where a large number of utilities need to be installed under the ground. The operation and maintenance of the old-fashioned systems are complicated. Their stability and methods of attachment of additional components for other purposes are also complicated and difficult.

The system is compliant with international safety standards. With the addition of a cast iron core inside the bottom of the bollard, it can be used specifically for emergency purposes where, for example, fire engines can simply push down the bollard according to international emergency regulations.

The flexible bollard system can be easily modified in respect to its dimensions and appearance, to fit different urban environments and social settings. It can also be easily configured to fit different urban needs; for example, for light indication or protection, with chains, light-duty railing panels or heavy-duty protection devices, or a combination of these features.

It is an environmentally-friendly system as damaged parts can be replaced or repaired without replacing the whole system, which saves money too. It helps government departments, private developers and other related parties to plan public space and property development projects. For example, government departments can easily remove the entire system or part of it to cope with a change in the function of the streets. The police can take away the entire set of bollards to free up pedestrian walkways and roads for huge rallies or take away only part of the system to divert the crowd and vehicular traffic.

The system has won many awards, including the Japan Intellectual Property Association Award for the Best Invention in Industrial Design 2009 and the Double Gold Award (Design Category) of the British Invention Award 2008. It has also garnered more than ten patents.

In May 2009 a simplified version of Flexibol was installed by HyD along highly congested Hing Fat Street in Causeway Bay for a trial test. It is now being considered for urban renewal projects in several metropolitan cities in China, including Beijing's central business district and the coastal areas of Tianjin.

The author would like to acknowledge the support of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Highways Department and the Asian Scholarship Foundation.

About the author: Ir Professor Kin Wai Michael Siu is professor and leader of the Public Design Lab, School of Design, Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Different types of railings, bars and chains can be fitted to Flexibol

Cross section of the system's components

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