Portions of this article are adapted from a longer essay, “ Stair Culture: Redefining Pedestrian Infrastructure in Hong Kong”.
As part of the everyday landscape of mountainous Hong Kong, outdoor stairways play a critical role in creating a permeable and accessible public realm. Embedded in hillsides, stacked on sidewalks or replacing streets and alleys altogether, Hong Kong’s ubiquitous and often emergent stairs (and the complex wayfinding they enable), are a reflection of a diverse city in continual flux. Serving as markets, ephemeral gathering places, secret short-cuts, wedding photo hot-spots, or quiet rest areas away from vehicular traffic, stairways are a vital typology of pedestrian and community infrastructure which define and embody the shared cultural experience of extreme topography.
In our hyper-dense city, stairs enable a democratic slowness, an ability to pause on our way home, whether to rest, chat, or take in the world around us. Rather than focusing only on our destination, stairs, and the pace they require, allow us to enjoy and reflect on our habitual paths through the unique cultural constructs that define our city. By allowing formalized access to places previously inaccessible, the aggregate of stairs becomes a cultural topographic map, marking the transformation and occupation of slopes, and making history in their localities.
Historic or not, the majority of Hong Kong stairs are built and maintained with function and frugality in mind. In fact, there is not even a comprehensive list of stairs, nor are they protected as a class, such as retaining walls and man-made slopes, or significant trees, which are inventoried, numbered, and inspected regularly by means of the ‘Catalogue of Slopes’ and the ‘Register of Old and Valuable Trees’, respectively. Only three out of thousands have heritage status, although many, at least in the Central and Western District, are made from local granite and date back to the mid-19th century, making them some of the oldest remaining built insertions in the city.
As a result, evidenced by careless maintenance practices and infrastructural projects, the character, quality, and very fabric of the steps and their associated public realm is deteriorating or being eliminated. In addition, neighborhoods currently benefitting from the peaceful environment and relative vehicular inaccessibility that their topography provides, are under threat, in a city whose built heritage has only just begun to be publically discussed and valued after half a century of physical and environmental degradation, neglect, and active destruction and replacement in the name of urban renewal and financial gain (Lee and DiStephano, 2007).
An escalator is not equal to stairs
A case in point is the top-down planning process currently underway to replace the Pound Lane stairs in the historic Blake Garden neighborhood with a 260m outdoor escalator. Although an escalator has the potential to transform the neighborhood much like the Mid-Levels Escalator initiated the creation of Soho, the city is moving ahead with detail design, having undertaken no official community consultation as of August 2012. With a combination of threatened heritage, insufficient consultation, and a seemingly exorbitant expenditure of public funds (estimated at HK$200 million), I initiated an ongoing research and engagement project at HKU to raise awareness about the proposal and its impacts (tangentially inspiring the Pound Lane Concern Group). As a result, we have posed an alternate strategy: rather than building a ‘highway’ through a historic corridor, which would only concentrate and accelerate the flow of people through the area, an equal or much lesser sum could be spent on distributed improvements: widening a sidewalk to encourage walking, planting a tree for a shadier staircase, or installing handrails or a ramp to improve accessibility. Ideally supported by an official planning mechanism such as an Area Improvement Plan, this strategy would disperse the financial investment, construction impacts, and eventually the people themselves, encouraging development, but at a slower and more controlled pace that is more suitable to the existing and highly-valued quiet and out-of-the-way character of Pound Lane.
Stairs are all too often seen as barriers to be replaced by an elevator or an escalator, rather than as pieces of cultural and physical heritage that have shaped the very essence of the city. In acknowledging the defining role of stairs, a Stair Culture is discovered whose existence can condition interventions that will respect and improve the existing fabric of the city, rather than perpetuate the current practices of devaluation, destruction, and replacement. These destruct-to-construct practices have led to the generally poor condition of the public realm and to an increasingly placeless and generic Hong Kong. Stairs have meaning to the people who use them and places where they exist. These connections, and the sense of discovery and privacy they elicit, are valuable to a future city where difference can be prioritized over sameness, community benefit over financial gain, slowness over speed, and meandering-through over travelling-above.
So what can you do to take part in HK’s Stair Culture? First, follow us at stair culture for opportunities to get involved in the first annual ‘Step Up!’ – a celebration of HK stairs through art, theatre, dance, and community initiatives. In the meantime, we are crowdsourcing photos of your favorite or everyday stairs – Instagram them (#stairCulture) or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Take part in HK’s Stair Culture!
Melissa Cate Christ is an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). She has lived on Caine Road in Hong Kong with her husband and 4 year old twins since August 2011.