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HK Magazine Archive

How Google Is Saving Hong Kong's Stairs

With the inclusion of 16 new sets of stairs on Google Street View, Hong Kong has yet another reason to save its staircases. 

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 10:52am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 5:08pm

Imagine walking in a straight line with a book placed on your head. Now imagine that the book is the Google Trekker: an 18kg sphere studded with 15 camera lenses encased in metal and held aloft over your head. And that straight line is a long set of worn-down, slippery, uneven stone steps—and you still need to keep your balance.

It’s all in a day’s work for Google Trekker operator Raf Ho, who wanders the streets and trails of Hong Kong as part of his work for Google Street View. Google has been mapping Hong Kong onto its digital database since 2010, but until the advent of the wearable Google Trekker camera in 2013, the only way to map the city was through their Street View car.

But this year the search company isn’t just going off-road: It wants to preserve our disappearing heritage, too.

Snapping Steps

Since May 5, anyone with an Internet connection can head to Google and scale any one of 15 staircases: from the 373 steps of Ladder Street, which connects Sheung Wan to Caine Road via Man Mo Temple; to the path leading up to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, lined with hundreds of life-size gilded statues.

“What we’re doing right now is archiving history, to allow [current] users or people in the future to see how this city changes over time,” says Cynthia Wei, the Asia Pacific Project Manager for Google Map’s Street View. “Most of the stairs are open to the elements. It’s always fast-changing; new parts of the city develop and old parts get quieter and quieter.” 

There’s a lot more still to go: Currently, there are over 3,000 stairs in Central and Western district, according to Stair Culture, a research project founded by landscape architect and Polytechnic University research professor Melissa Cate Christ. She and her team are creating their own archive of the city’s stairs in an effort to provide the city with a sense of the roles that stairs play in the community.

Stairs and the City

“Stairs perform a function of public space that we are lacking in Hong Kong,” says Cate Christ. Much like parks but located more conveniently, stairs are meeting places, resting areas, and quiet corners far from traffic. Not long ago, the city’s staircases served as market streets. Before cars, people mostly stuck to stairs to get around the city quickly, so shops opened up to capture this foot traffic. Wide landings offered relief to coolies as they made their way up the city. But increasingly, staircases are subject to development.

A proposal to put in a new escalator on Pound Lane in Sheung Wan, which would cost some $200 million to construct, has been met with contention in the community. “The area is historic,” says Cate Christ. “We already have a SoHo. We already have a Lan Kwai Fong. If an escalator gets put in, then we’re going to see gentrification overnight, like what happened with Centre Street [in Sai Ying Pun].”

She remembers when, early on in the government’s proposal for Pound Lane, units around the escalator were already being bought up by developers because of how the Mid-Levels escalator increased rents in SoHo and the Mid-Levels — ”[Escalators] have a history of increasing rent, and that’s why developers like them.” 

Tripped Up

“We’re making the argument that the stairs should be considered public space,” says Cate Christ. “Stairs are structures, not just sidewalks, and they should be catalogued.”

In 2012 Cate Christ and her students suggested to the Central and Western District Council and the Transport Department that instead of installing the escalator, the government simply implement small changes—such as putting in a new handrail, widening the sidewalks, or putting in green edges and benches—to increase the quality of life in the neighborhood. But her pleas went ignored. “The government wasn’t really interested in improving the quality of the neighborhood,” she says. “They were interested in redeveloping.” 

The Stairs My Destination

Stair Culture and Google both say they’re trying to highlight something that many don’t see: That there’s significance to Hong Kong’s stairs beyond moving people around. In this city of fast cars and hyper-efficient public transport, they are the only places which are wholly and freely for pedestrians.

“Maybe we can help to introduce these amazing stairs to future generations,” says Google’s Cynthia Wei.

With luck Raf Ho can get through all our stairs before they truly become history.