Universal Access Fest

Ava Hoffman

A toolkit for collaborative experimentation to uplift local knowledge, promote dialogue, build community, and support strategic action around physical and digital access in Kwun Tong.


As Kwun Tong experiences rapid transformation under the banner of transforming the district into a “smart city,” it is critical that we question, a smart city for whom? Who will have access to these new tools, technologies, and urban spaces — both virtual and real? And who will be left out?

The cracks in the seams of the smart city’s discursive espousal of social inclusion are brought into sharp relief by the inequitable outcomes of ongoing state-led gentrification. As the district seeks to attract younger, wealthier, and more tech-savvy residents, longtime residents deemed incompatible with new imaginaries of “progress,” “growth,” and “development” — predominantly low-income, aged, and less digitally networked residents — are increasingly at risk of cultural and spatial displacement.

This project takes as a point of departure the conviction that it is imperative to ground future-looking visions of Kwun Tong in the on-the-ground reality of the existing city, as it is inhabited by the neighborhood’s longtime residents. Kwun Tong is home to more older adults (65+) than any other district in Hong Kong. The social context is further marked by the district’s status as one of Hong Kong’s lowest-income districts. The physical landscape is marked by the area’s hilly topography, complicating pedestrian access. But accessibility challenges are not limited to the physical — as the digital realm becomes an increasingly integral part of daily life, older adults are showing interest and willingness to cross the bridge toward digital inclusion, but still face structural challenges toward gaining access to these tools.

An equitable, “socially smart” city must be an accessible city, an affordable city — one premised not only on the veneer of inclusion, but on meeting people where they are at, centering their perspectives and their presence, and bringing them in as active agents in this process of transformation.
Through the lens of equity-centered accessibility planning, this project aims not only to investigate how access is afforded or denied — but also to critically probe how power maps onto physical and virtual space such to reveal sites of injustice, build critical awareness, and develop tools and technologies that promote access to the city for all residents. In doing so, the project draws inspiration from what Lefebvre (1968) calls a “demand…[for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life” — a right to the city, a right to access the city, and a right to participate in the creation of an accessible city.

Part II Proposal

Absent a strategic framework centered on equity and access, “urban renewal” works in Kwun Tong underway as part of the district’s “Smart City” / Kowloon East CBD2 initiative risk further entrenching pre-existing physical and digital divides to the effect of the displacement and marginalization of Upper Kwun Tong’s longtime residents, their perspectives, and their neighborhood’s living history. In view of these challenges, how might we uplift local knowledge, promote dialogue, build community, and generate support for strategic action around physical and digital access in Kwun Tong?
The Universal Access Fest is a toolkit for collaborative experimentation that leverages community networks, popular education, participatory planning, and technology to bring visibility to local challenges and mobilize support for accessibility projects. At its core, and where technology plays an enabling role, the Universal Access Fest aims to enable residents to decide their neighborhood’s future in a collaborative and iterative way, ultimately moving the needle on who is included in the “smart city” vision.

The Universal Access Fest envisions strategic pop-up interventions into public spaces surrounding public housing estates to spur local dialogue and action around issues of physical and digital access in Kwun Tong. Festival programming would feature a range of opportunities to learn, plan, and play — from intergenerational technology tutoring and community mapping, to empowering design games and inclusive art, food, and music. The festival’s three pillars are learn, plan, and play. By incorporating elements of imagination into a typically professionalized environment, the Universal Access Fest aims to equip residents with the guidance to voice concerns and aspirations as they navigate, lead, and contest processes of neighborhood change.

The Universal Access Fest is geared toward residents of Upper Kwun Tong — a population that is predominantly aged, low-income, and less digitally included. The event would be realized as a joint initiative of public sector agencies — such as the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Planning Department, Social Welfare Department, and the Housing Authority — in collaboration with community-based NGOs, public housing estate management committees (EMAC), and grassroots groups and actors.

Geographic Scope
The proposal is geared toward residents of Upper Kwun Tong’s public housing estates. Ngau Tau Kok was selected as the site of the first pilot, where older adults make up nearly one third of the local population. Per the 2016 census, more people live alone in Ngau Tau Kok than in any other area of Kwun Tong. It has the lowest median household income in Kwun Tong, and the third lowest across Hong Kong. And last but not least, it’s a place where strong community mobilization around the estate’s redevelopment set an important precedent for future engagement that can be built on. Ping Tin, Tsui Ping, and Choi Tak would be prioritized for early implementation based on their demographic profiles with similarly large populations of older adults over the age of 65, single-person households, low-income households, and overall high residential densities. Riding on the energy generated by the first pilot initiative, new editions would be realized with the goal of bringing the festival to all public estates in Kwun Tong.

The festival strives to promote public dialogue, raise awareness, highlight local assets and challenges, uplift local social inclusion initiatives, mobilize popular support for accessibility programming, foster knowledge exchanges, strengthen local networks, and catalyze community capacity. The long term goal is to realize Kwun Tong’s potential as a model of inclusive, collaborative, and accessible urbanism by centering the voices of those least likely to be heard in traditional planning processes.


Concept Evolution

The original impetus for this proposal was a simple problem statement rooted in deficits. The final iteration, on the other hand, reflects a desire to build local capacity by leveraging the power of existing neighborhood institutions and networks — thus moving from a purely needs-based approach and toward an asset-based development framework; from a barrier-free access paradigm and toward one of universal accessibility and human rights; from a tech-driven approach in which age and mobility are seen as limitations to be overcome, and toward approach focused on promoting autonomy, empowerment, and supporting human capabilities; and finally, from discrete, project-specific interventions and toward a more holistic approach centered on the concepts of equity and accessibility.

Literature Review

To better comprehend Kwun Tong’s local specificities, I consulted a host of academic literature on key topics related to public housing, residential satisfaction among older adults, accessibility planning, and participatory design.

Public Housing in Focus

The first strand of literature explores the linkages between older adult public housing tenants’ sense of residential satisfaction and their physical environments at various scales of dwelling (the home, the neighborhood, the community). This topic was explored with the aim of grounding the proposed interventions in sites of sociability and institutions that anchor community life in Kwun Tong.

Within the “structural domain” of dwelling (Phillips et al 2004) — the immediate environment provided by the home — a well established body of literature affirms that Hong Kong residents have a strong preference for aging in place. Living in public housing, in particular, is highly associated with residential satisfaction among older adults (Hiu 2014). Aging in place, however, is challenged by drivers of displacement such as urban renewal, which disproportionately targets older areas with high concentrations of public housing and older residents (Chiu 2006). These findings underscore the importance of appropriate home design and comprehensive community care facilities in public housing estates, as well as mechanisms to ensure residents’ ability to “stay put” (i.e. affordability and tenure security mechanisms).

Within the “formal” domain (i.e. community facilities) (Phillips et al 2004), outdoor communal spaces provide important opportunities for social connection among elderly residents of housing estates (Huang). Likewise, residents display a strong local preference for proximity to amenities, social inclusion, and high-quality facilities (Yung 2016). However, the realization, frequency, and duration of social activities in public space is contingent on a favorable environment. Access to these public spaces is often complicated by Kwun Tong’s hilly topography, where steep slopes not only hinder mobility and enjoyment of access to community life but also pose serious hazards (Chang et al. 2019, Welage and Liu, 2011).

Finally, within the “informal” domain (networks of social support) (Phillips et al. 2004), elderly social inclusion facilities are strongly related to reduced depression, with even more positive impact among older persons living in low-income neighborhoods (Miao 2017). Social exclusion indicators, however, appear among the oldest segment of the elderly population, who despite hardship express a strong will to “stay put” in view of affective relations cultivated over time that translates into resilience and a capacity for adaptation (Sun et al. 2018). These findings underscore the importance of social inclusion initiatives given the relations between mental health and wellbeing among this segment of the population. Meanwhile, as the digital realm becomes an increasingly prevalent site of sociability (Wong et al. 2005), 2019 data showed that only 62% of older adults (65+) had used the Internet one or more times in the past year — compared to 92% of the general population. While usership is increasing, relatively low digital penetration among older adults, who are disproportionately lower-income with respect to the general population, must be understood in the context of structural barriers to access including the cost of computers, high-speed internet, and adequate training (Kwong 2015).

Participatory Process in Focus

The second strand of literature probes participatory processes in the Hong Kong context. Ngau Tau Kok — selected as the first pilot site for the present project — stands out in the literature as perhaps the most successful community-led redevelopment process in Hong Kong in that it not only prioritized the original residents’ right to stay put but also successfully translated residents’ demands and needs into the estate’s final design (Lee 2010). As Hui (2013) describes, “the urban redevelopment of the Ngau Tau Kok estates can be seen as a representative case of how to rebuild a public housing neighborhood for [the] local community. Through phased reconstruction and ‘resettlement in the same estate,’ the original community, including elderly people, was successfully resettled in the same housing area… the sense of community was not only maintained but also strengthened through the process of redevelopment.”

That said, the case of the Ngau Tau Kok estates emerges as an outlier in an urban redevelopment context in which it is less common for residents to play an agenda-setting role. Critically, in the case of Ngau Tau Kok, contestation and organized protest paved the way to key victories for tenants (Lee 2010).

Still, the redevelopment of the Ngau Tau Kok estates remained a Housing Authority-initiated project (Hui 2013). While the Housing Authority has taken a deliberate turn toward a more deeply participatory mode of action in the past two decades — from informing and consulting toward higher levels of community partnership, as manifested in initiatives like the Estate Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) scheme — there remains work to be done, moving from “reactive” to “proactive” engagement and from project-specific to continuous engagement.

Nonetheless, the experience of Ngau Tau Kok stands in stark contrast to the tokenistic mode of consultation that remains prevalent in the context of the redevelopment of Hong Kong’s older urban areas. For instance, Martinez Lopez and Yip (2014) document the case of the Kowloon East redevelopment, citing activists’ concerns over the workshops’ biased design, the vested economic interests at play, the lack of accessible public information, the one-sided nature of the workshops as an opportunity to “sell” the project, “pre-made” decisions, and the exclusion of non-institutional actors, among other concerns.

The institutional memory, learning, capacity-building cultivated by the Ngau Tau Kok experience renders it an interesting point of entry into discussions on how to bridge old and new physical spaces and technologies with priority for the inclusion and active participation of longtime residents, at the same time contributing to the strengthening of a sense of local identity and pride around Kwun Tong’s public housing estates.

Accessibility Analysis  Kwun Tong’s steep streets  and hilly landscape  (Data: OSM)


To further guide my research, five leading researchers, academics, practitioners, and activists working in architecture, planning, social welfare, gerontology, and design research generously provided insight into the challenges and opportunities for realizing this proposal in Kwun Tong. These conversations led me to ask the following questions as I developed my project proposal:

Calvin Luk – Chairman, Association for Universal Accessibility HK How might we embrace the concept of ‘beyond barrier free access’ in planning and design? How might we prioritize equitable access to information in recognition of people’s autonomy and capabilities?

KK Ling – Director, Jockey Club Design Institute for Social Innovation How might we holistically, incrementally, and continuously strive to promote the age-friendly city? How might we design from an elderly-centric point of view to address the challenges of double aging? How might we ensure equity in access to technology?

Vivian W.Q. Lou – Director, Sau Po Centre on Ageing How might we recalibrate public policy with renewed attention to collective wellbeing and with priority for society’s most vulnerable members? How might we more proactively anticipate these residents’ needs?

Helen Leung – Senior Architect, Hong Kong Housing Authority How might we facilitate the upgrading of older urban areas in a way that keeps the neighborhood’s DNA intact? How might we embed creative strategies into our engagement processes?

Yanki Lee – Co-founder, Enable Foundation How might we create tools that enable co-creation? How might we bridge professional and grassroots knowledge through people centered design — by people, for people, and with people?


Concept Map  Upper Ngau Tau Kok  as the first public housing estate to host a local edition of the Universal Access Fest
Involving a wide network of actors, the festival is a medium for innovation while also working to strengthen and synergize the efforts of existing community networks, organizations, institutions, and collectives working to improve accessibility through elder-youth engagement, disability advocacy, urban planning, digital literacy, arts inclusion, and other avenues.
To realize the festival, activities would be spread across the estate’s grounds, with thematic nodes corresponding to the Learn-Plan-Play pillars. In each of the three nodes, participants are invited to join a variety of programs.

For instance, in the learning node, attendees might stop by the “Update Center” to learn about the latest tech interventions and connect to resources for accessing these tools. Or, they might stop by the tech clinic — a space for training and troubleshooting that connects youth tutors and older adult tech ambassadors with residents seeking assistance — realized in collaboration with existing ICT training initiatives.

In the planning node, the welcoming environment of a teahouse, an important neighborhood institution, could transform into the setting of a “World Cafe” roundtable — a social technology for engaging neighbors in guided conversation around important issues to them and their communities.

Or, residents could join a community mapping session — highlighting community strengths, identifying shared challenges, defining priorities, and targeting resources through a visual and tactile, hands-on media.

Once challenges are identified, a game of “solutions four-square,” could be a forum for brainstorming how to tackle them at an individual, local, city-wide, and global level. Alternatively, attendees might simply want to enjoy the event as a social experience, partaking in the food, music, and inclusive art from local groups and vendors.

The multimodal nature of the programming reflects the organizing principle of the festival. Rather than championing a single “tech-centric fix,” the festival strives to cultivate an ecosystem of collaboration, a space for dialogue, and bringing these debates to neighborhood hubs where accessibility challenges are most acutely experienced.

Spotlight on Co-Design

The World Cafe Method

What? The World Cafe Method is organized around seven design principles: set the context, create hospitable space, explore  questions that matter, encourage everyone’s participation, connect diverse perspectives, listen together for patterns & insights, and share collective discoveries.

How does it work? The host introduces themselves and explains the process, which consists of three or more 20-minute rounds of conversation around a context-specific question defined by the host. At the end of each round, participants switch tables. One facilitator may stay at each table to guide conversation. At the end or between rounds, the large group meets as a collective, while a facilitator graphically and verbally records insights.

Community Asset and Needs Mapping

What? Community asset mapping is a process that focuses not on deficits, but rather on existing strengths. The method stems from a belief that there exist a multitude of resources within a  community that should be recognized and uplifted. Community needs mapping, in turn, is a tool for identifying shortcomings and gaps, defining priorities, and targeting resources.

How? The host defines a research question. For example: What types of accessibility assets & needs exist in Kwun Tong? In a focus group around a map, the facilitators work to guide a conversation around residents’ experiences around questions of accessibility in the neighborhood. This conversation serves as the foundation for a deeper dive that might include a neighborhood survey or guided community walk, to both illuminate challenges but also leverage and uplift local assets — people, places, and institutions — that can help tackle those issues identified.


To streamline the process but also design it as sufficiently flexible and adaptable to attend to local specificities and the aspirations of organizers on the ground, the “Planning Roadmap” can serve as guidance for government agencies as they take first steps toward organizing an iteration of the festival 
1. Partner with local groups. Bring local civic groups (NGOs, youth and elderly  centres, and more) on board early.  Make them active partners in the ideation and design process.

2. Form an organizing commitee. Ensure that the organizing committee is  representative of the Kwun Tong community along age, gender, race, income, disability, and other lines. Articulate a vision statement with specific place-based goals for the event. Invite local institutions, advocacy groups, artists, vendors,  and facilitators to host stations and stalls.

3. Select a site. Use an equity-based criteria to select a site with attention and priority for people and places that are currently and have historically been denied equitable access to public infrastructure, services, and healthy environments.

4. Modify the site. Inspect the venue for mobility, visibility, acoustics, technology, and service animals to ensure that key accessibility features are in place. Consult local legal compliance standards and external resources on universal accessibility “beyond barrier-free access.”

5. Offer materials in alternative formats an languages.  Formulate an accessibility statement, acknowledge any remaining barriers, and create an accommodations request process.

6. Ensure accessible facilities and suppor services. Designate an Access Center and provide meeting and activity materials in alternative formats to enable equitable and full participation.

7. Evaluate an improve. Carry out a post-event survey for organizers and attendees.

As a pop-up event, the festival draws inspiration from the practice of tactical urbanism (low-cost, scalable interventions aimed at catalyzing long-term change). The ability to make quick tweaks and a capacity for multiple iteration drive this powerful methodology. The largest investments would come in the form of human capital and training. But catalyzing human capacity would be also the greatest gain.

While transitioning to a different housing estate each month, the event would maintain a growing neighborhood presence — eventually becoming a local reference.Meanwhile, strategic planning efforts counting on the collaboration of key government agencies would begin several months prior to launch and see continuity throughout, incorporating lessons from each event into the next iteration.

Evaluation and Success Metrics

Being transparent about potential roadblocks is critical. Ongoing challenges include:

1. Reaching the “hidden” population less actively inclined to participate — how do we ensure not only that robust numbers of residents are participating, but that we’re reaching those individuals and communities who are too often left out of the planning process? Overcoming this challenge will require strategic outreach in coordination with social workers from the Welfare Department, as well as community-based NGOs. To borrow a phrase from my conversation with designer Yanki Lee, this requires “riding on” the existing networks of local institutions and community leaders who have cultivated trust with residents over many years and decades, and training residents to serve as “ambassadors” — disseminating knowledge and tools with their peers and neighbors.

2. Generating the political momentum to articulate demands and mobilize a community around support for an issue is a worthy goal in itself. But the objectives of the Universal Access Fest are more far reaching. When solicited, community input must lead to sustained action on the part of district and city leadership. This requires a commitment by local leaders in power to take these inputs seriously as they devise policies, programs, and interventions, thus underpinning the importance of relevant government agencies in a position to bring these aspirations and inputs to fruition on board.

In a broader sense, the festival aims to make an impact by:

1. Bringing accessibility into focus. Too often, accessibility is an afterthought. The Universal Access Fest aims to place accessibility front and center, showing how fundamental accessibility is to realizing the right to the city.

2. Strengthening existing initiatives. Too often, high tech solutions designed in pursuit of constant innovation fail to address on-the-ground local needs that could be met by low-tech solutions, or by the provision of existing technologies to new audiences. The Universal Access Fest aims to strengthen existing projects, institutions, and collectives, promote knowledge-exchanges, and bring existing tools and technologies to new audiences rather than reinventing the wheel.

3. Promoting continuous and proactive engagement. Too often, public engagement is project specific; inputs are solicited after a large part of the agenda-setting work has already been done. The Universal Access Fest aims to create spaces for mutual learning, engagement, and deep participation that are holistic and integrated into the everyday lives of residents, proactively anticipating needs.


The possibilities for learning, planning and playing that could feature as part of the festival are expansive. We can’t know with certainty which new methods and technologies the future of city making will hold, or how these media will re-shape engagement. But as these technologies emerge, it’s more critical than ever to equip people with the tools to navigate, lead, and contest the neighborhood’s transformation.

In this way, the festival is about bridging access to the digital city as an interface, and to the real city as it is lived; bridging local history with future-looking visions of transformation; bridging where we are, where we’ve been, and where we want to go as a community, as a city, and as a society. At its core, and where technology plays an enabling role, it’s about access to information, tools, people, and places where decisions are being made. It’s about transforming your point of engagement, from urban user, to urban citizen claiming the right to the city — the right to access the city, and the right to create an accessible city.

Back to Projects