Kaohsiung Builds but People May Need a Nudge Before They Come

Kaohsiung Builds but People May Need a Nudge Before They Come
Photo Credit: Kaohsiung Urban Development Bureau
What you need to know

Kaohsiung is constructing monuments to progress, but basic quality-of-life improvements are needed to make the city truly livable.

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This October, the planet’s largest concert venue under one roof officially opens in Kaohsiung, built on the site of an old military base.

It’s an impressive building. Impressive, too, is what’s planned for the new Kaohsiung Main Train Station, a gorgeous open, green and friendly complex that will make the Taipei Main Station look downright Stalinist.

I love my adopted hometown of Kaohsiung and bristle at expat bloggers or friends who rag on this city. I’ve seen what was – with only slight use of hyperbole – an industrial wasteland, transform into what I consider one of the most livable cities on the island. Watching electric buses silently glide along relatively clean streets or solar-powered tour boats on the Love River fills me with pride. Other changes to the waterfront and various beautification projects are likewise inspiring.

I’ve seen what was an industrial wasteland transform into what I consider one of the most livable cities on the island.

As an occasional translator and consultant to the city government, I’m annually requested to write a sort of white paper on boosting investment – with an eye specifically towards getting more North American and European firms and talent to choose Taiwan’s Harbor City.

Kaohsiung has the largest land area of any city in Taiwan, but Taichung overtook this city not long ago in population. I accept this is due to a plethora of factors -- a better job market, child care subsidies -- some of which are likely not controllable. But a falling population does at least point to the possibility that we are not attracting enough local people to stay nor enticing enough people from abroad to live and work in Kaohsiung.

A government agency recently asked for projections of investment revenue based on the soon-to-be-completed Music Center and the under-construction Cruise Ship Terminal – both of which are part of a massive redevelopment of the port district termed “Asia’s New Bay Area.” The assumption was apparently that shiny new buildings and infrastructure are natural magnets for investment.

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Photo Credit: Kaohsiung Urban Development Bureau
An illustration of Kaohsiung's new concert venue, currently under construction.

But I have my doubts about the “if you build it they will come” strategy.

Seeing the faces of a European family crossing an intersection with a baby in a stroller as scooters raced by just inches from the buggy left me with the distinct impression that we can count them out as potential future Kaohsiung residents or investors. Over the past two months, I’ve come into contact with three scooters while walking on the sidewalk, the consequence of a regrettably common local practice of using sidewalks to make illegal right turns at a light.

Taipei is by no means perfect, but the capital city has mostly succeeded in establishing a basic level of law and order within its borders. Of course, Taipei City has unique advantages that make it attractive, but anyone who lived there before that baseline of order came into being will likely attest to its favorable contribution to the city.

Taipei is by no means perfect, but the capital city has mostly succeeded in establishing a basic level of law and order within its borders.

In their 2008 book "Nudge," University of Chicago economist Richard H. Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass R. Sunstein argue that governments and or organizations may not always be able to change behavior via edicts, but people can be nudged toward change.

Terming their concepts “libertarian paternalism” and “choice engineering,” the authors cite cases that offer convincing evidence that people can and do change their behavior when "nudged" in the right direction. these nudges can be gentle -- such as cabs in New York installing credit card machines and seeing tips spike 10 to 22 percent -- or more forceful, such as requiring citizens to “opt out” of being an organ donor rather than hoping you sign up. I suggest Kaohsiung tries a bit more nudging with regard to establishing a law and order baseline.

A police chief I once spoke to is right: the city doesn’t have the resources to put a cop on every sidewalk, and the fine for riding on one won’t greatly affect offenders. But how about some nudges?

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高雄市 Photo Credit: PoYang_博仰 CC BY ND 2.0
Kaohsiung could hardly be described as walkable.

Steel barriers properly spaced in front of sidewalks would make riding scooters on them less attractive. Concrete road dividers are rather firm ways of preventing acrobatic U-turns. Making it physically impossible to make illegal left turns during rush hour equals 100 percent compliance. Seeing officers ticket motorcyclists who flout the “no smoking while motoring on two wheels” law might be enough to nudge lighters back into the pockets of others.

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Photo Credit: Eryk Smith
Motorcyclists are seen driving on the sidewalk in Kaohsiung.

“Evolution, not revolution” is a mantra I try to remind myself of when feeling frustrated, but even evolution requires nudges. Our new music center is going to be an a out-of-this world addition to the changing skyline of Kaohsiung while the cruise ship terminal will gleam for kilometers out to approaching ships.

But will they be enough to convince people to do more than visit the city once?

Many who choose to live and work in Kaohsiung are able to overlook the negative and focus on so much that’s great about Kaohsiung, but how many more could be enticed if first impressions were just a nudge more positive?

Are we putting the cart before the scooter?

Could some easy-to-implement adjustments boost the city’s reputation as a good place to settle and invest in?

I suggest we find out.

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Editor: Morley J Weston