The photos I posted last week of Hong Kong’s hilly streets reminded me of a conversation I had more than a year ago with Melissa Cate Christ, who works at the University of Hong Kong’s architecture school. Christ is leading an investigation into the many public staircases and “ladder streets” on the north side of Hong Kong Island, where these attempts to negotiate an unforgiving landscape are often the only remaining signs of Hong Kong as it once existed. Many of these steps predate the buildings around them by decades, if not a century; they’re Hong Kong’s last tangible connection to the city of Victorian balustrades and tile-roofed tenements that once existed on these shores.
Officially speaking, however, most of these steps do not exist. As far as the government is concerned, a set of century-old granite steps is no different than an ordinary concrete footpath. There hasn’t been any comprehensive effort made on the part of Hong Kong’s administrators to understand how all of these ladder streets and staircases work in the urban context — how people use them and how they affect neighbourhood mobility, not to mention their historical value. The consequences of that are misguided projects like the proposed Pound Lane escalator, which would install a very expensive and intrusive piece of machinery on a quiet street, encouraging redevelopment and destroying trees and historic walls in the process.
So Christ and her students are doing what the government has not. Earlier this year, they launched a website, Stair Culture, that was accompanied by an exhibition of maps, photos and proposed interventions that would improve the pedestrian environment of Hong Kong’s hilly streets and provide an alternative to the Pound Land escalator. Christ has also been mapping all of the steps from Wan Chai to Pok Fu Lam, which serves to highlight just how vertical Hong Kong is. When she started making her map, Christ was using satellite imagery on Google Maps to find stairs, but she told me recently that the government has started marking steps on a separate layer in the digital versions its official maps, which suggests that it may be taking Christ’s lead and paying more attention to Hong Kong’s steps after all.
Here’s the full map. Click to enlarge.
Now for some detail; I’ve inverted the colours to make the steps stand out a bit more. Here you can see Wan Chai, whose original shoreline was along Queen’s Road East. Above that, it’s all flat; below, it’s quite hilly, with a number of ladder streets, staircases and steep roads flanked by steps.
Below is Central and Sheung Wan. The few random steps you see near the harbour, at the top of the image, are those leading up to footbridges. The long row of steps near the bottom right corner of the map is the Central Mid-Levels escalator, which runs along Cochrane and Shelley streets. The left half of the map is dominated by the pedestrian-only ladder streets of Sheung Wan, including Pound Lane, Shing Wong Street, Ladder Street and many others.
And here’s Sai Ying Pun and Shek Tong Tsui, a bit further west. Sai Ying Pun is notable for being master-planned along a grid, which leads to some very steep, San Francisco-like streets, which are open to cars, unlike those in Sheung Wan. Most of the steps you see are sidewalks running alongside a conventional road. The lack of pedestrian-only ladder streets creates a very different kind of urban environment to Sheung Wan — more accessible, in some ways, but also noisier, more polluted and less pleasant.
Tags: Hong Kong, Ladder Streets, Pedestrians, Staircases, Urban Design