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Stairs of Sociability

When strolling around on the rare sunny day in Groningen, you notice people really take advantage of getting some natural vitamin D. Almost every inch of the city becomes a social ground, a place for chit-chat, relaxation, and leisure. In the world of urban design, it is interesting to notice how unofficial gathering places become the most social place to be. The stairway is an example of this phenomenon that can be observed in multiple places throughout the city such as parks, university grounds, shops, and so on. On these sunny days, the main function of stairs shifts to a state where it becomes actually challenging to use stairways as functional pathways. For periods of time in a day, stairs become social hubs.

Dynamic Activities Bringing Life to Stairways

There are many types of staircases, but almost every design attracts either deliberately or unknowingly. People are attracted to visually pleasing, lively spaces and places and use them as social hubs or observe the city drama. The staircase of the Academy building on a sunny day is packed with students taking a break from classes or studying in the UB. They come here to sit and chat, have a quick pastry snack with a coffee from Jumbo or Albert Hein, people-watch or sunbathe as a break from a day in the library. The Academy building is one of the most iconic cultural heritage landmarks in the city, offering a sense of cultural connection to Dutch architecture, which is eye- and soul-pleasing. Naturally, people are attracted to places like this. In this case, it is a place for many budget-conscious students to enjoy a free visit or even a cheap vending machine coffee, which can be seen as a great luxury to many.

Directly across the Academy building, is the university’s library and the social staircase phenomenon repeats, but in this case, indoors. Here, the weather does not play a role in attracting people. It is one of few places in the library where people can talk and sit, so naturally, people take advantage of it and gather in groups to chit-chat over a snack between studying. On busy days such as during exam periods these stairways are packed with students, and passing between floors becomes a challenge. In the lively city center, options to sit down without having to pay are hard to come by. The city center is not seen as a place for relaxation, more so as a place for taking part in fun activities and spending money. Despite this, you can still find people sitting on a staircase to someone’s house near the front door. This might seem invasive to many because it blurs the distinction between public and private space. Having the feeling of going unnoticed while resting and chatting on someone’s stairs beats the feeling of invading someone’s private space.

Global Showcase

From the evolving architectural periods, stairs have been seen from many functional and symbolic perspectives, their importance bringing us many beautiful grand staircases and unique designs. Full of cultural identity, social aspects of stairs can be seen worldwide. The famous Metropolitan Museum in New York City has an iconic stairway that has played a role in many movies and is used for the world’s biggest fashion event, the Met Gala, yearly. During the rest of the year, the stairs are seen as a social hub by many inhabitants and used as a public place for gathering, leisure, and people-watching. Paul Goldberg accurately commented on this phenomenon by saying:

“There are some stairs in the city like those in front of The Metropolitan Museum of Art that are arguably more important urban events than the buildings to which they lead”

In Munich, the stairway leading to Glyptothek, the sculpture museum, was such an important public space that even after closing the whole building for reconstruction, it sparked an initiation to design a temporary replacement. The stairs to Paris’ Sacré-Coeur offer an incredible panoramic city view, drawing large crowds to enjoy it, inviting street performers, large amounts of photoshoots, and even proposals.

Rethinking the Urban Design Role

Despite the benefits they bring to public spaces, stairs do have flaws; particularly they pose limitations to people with limited mobility. Multiple unique designs offer solutions to this; it is just in the hands of architects and urban designers. Inclusive designs can be seen more so in newly built public spaces, such as Vancouver’s Robson Square, where accessibility is not an issue for anyone, regardless of their level of ability.

Stairways have the potential to be more than just useful architectural components. The urban design has a space to create welcoming and interesting areas that promote community, foster interactions, and improve the general well-being of people and users by purposefully taking the social elements of stairways into account. Rethinking the stairway layout may help to create inclusive, bright, energetic urban spaces that encourage social interactions and a feeling of community.

The way we interact in a public space is seen everywhere in urban design, it helps to provide for needs in shared spaces and shapes the existing and future urban designs. Stairways all over the world have become unofficial gathering places, prompting many social interactions. They are free places to have a cup of coffee and a pastry snack, soaking in the sun while enjoying the city. Stairs become iconic features that make an impact due to their visual state, symbolism, and interaction.

Nina Zrubáková
Nina Zrubáková
I am Spatial Planning and Design student at RUG, a media enthusiast interested in urbanism-related topics. I am also working on designing layouts for the issues with the design team.
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