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Hong Kong, the City Without Ground

Hong Kong, the City Without Ground
Adam Frampton

For miles and miles, you can walk through the city of Hong Kong without ever once putting a foot on the ground. All day you can get everywhere you need to go, taking care of any errand you might have on your list, all while separated from the streets and surface of the city. This is possible thanks to the network of elevated walkways and underground tunnels that have gradually developed in the city – both formally and informally – over the past 50 years.

It's an impressively widespread pedestrian infrastructure, linking people to the waterfront city's wide array of transportation options. And as a forthcoming book contends, it's also a new kind of civic space and even a new form of citymaking. Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook, out in September from ORO Editions, considers the city through the lens of these above- and below-ground walkways, creating the first-ever maps showing the extent and variety of these networks.

Co-authored by Adam Frampton, Jonathan D. Solomon and Clara Wong, architects and academics who spent time living and working in Hong Kong, the book comprehensively documents the walkways through highly detailed drawings and 3D models. Mostly visual, it presents a different kind of city guide, showing both how to get around within these networks and how they've developed and grown despite any formal planning or blueprint.


Map showing the pedestrian networks (black lines) overlaid on the street grid (blue lines) of the urban areas of Hong Kong.

"It's an exciting urban experience," says Solomon, now associate dean at the School of Architecture at Syracuse University. "You're constantly shifting from underground to above ground, from interior to exterior, from air-conditioned to non-air-conditioned, from public to private, and the dimensions are constantly going from large spaces to tighter spaces."

The walkways are so varied because they were all developed at different times and by different people. The first was built in the 1960s by the Hongkong Land company, one of the main developers in the region, to connect a high-end hotel to the second-story of a shopping mall. Gradually they began to see that they could rent out the walkway-accessible second story retail space in the mall for as much or even more than the ground floor space, and so the company started building more and more walkways connecting their various properties.

"And then the government saw it and said, 'Hey this looks like a good way to circulate people without getting in the way of the movement of cars.' So they start building bridges to link the ferries and the trains and the buses and everything into the center of the city," Solomon says.


The walkway network around the Central Station, showing the levels of walkway, the various linkages and some of the sights that can be seen there: "Louis Vuitton," "Fake Louis Vuitton," "Impromptu Sunday Post Office," "Shoe Shiners," "Tourist Convergence."


Pink and the pink and white sections are publicly accessible walkways. Orange and yellow areas are parts of train stations only accessible by paying customers. Blue columns and lines represent moving walkways, staircases and elevators. Green paths are train lines.

There are now miles of walkways and usable space that create connections throughout some of the most crowded and central areas of the city. "It's bits of private development, bits of public development, a little bit of city streets, a little bit of foot bridge, a little bit of train station, corporate lobby, hotel, et cetera, all kind of strung together ad hoc into a continual civic space," Solomon says.

It's all unplanned, Solomon says, and unexpected. He calls it an aformal urbanism – neither formal nor informal.

"It’s a collaboration between top-down government planning and kind of bottom-up market emergence that really wouldn't function without the participation of the other," Solomon says.

If one property owner or the government were to shut down its segment, the system would cease to function. So no one does and the crowds continue to flow. And overflow. The walkways next to restaurants also serve as seating areas, and repair shops located along the way also spill out into the space. People sit and play mahjong, or hold political protests or display art exhibitions. Cities Without Ground suggests that all this activity taking place in such an aformal setting shows that there is a new kind of public space developing – one that's new and different from the plazas and squares Westerners might typically think of as urban public spaces.

"Any activity that you would expect to find on a street or in a public square," Solomon says, "you would find somewhere in this network."

On Sundays, some of these spaces are practically taken over by thousands of foreign domestic workers who gather together on their weekly day off. In long rows they sit out, on blankets or lounged on the concrete, chatting and eating and sleeping and sewing, like a stationary parade of picnics. Without formal residency rights, they leave the rooms their employers provide on Sundays to make the public spaces of this special administrative region their living room for the day.

Even Hong Kong's Occupy Wall Street demonstrators gather within this network, sitting in the atrium of the HSBC bank building. The public spaces of the city aren't fully public nor fully private. And it doesn't seem to matter. Solomon says these walkways are incredibly vibrant parts of town, and represent a new method of providing usable space within a city. The maps in Cities Without Ground seek to show that this system of walkways – messy and aformal and almost completely separate from the actual ground of the city – is just as important to Hong Kong as the sidewalks and public spaces of any other city.

"These networks function in the same way that ground functions, they're just in three dimensions," Solomon says. "And they're much less predictable."

Maps courtesy Adam Frampton, Jonathan D. Solomon and Clara Wong. Photos by Adam Frampton.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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