Walkable placemaking with outdoor public stairways

Mural in Bisbee, Arizona says it all.

Note: – For purposes of this blogpost, stairways, stairs, and stair-steps are used interchangeably.

Post updated 2/16/23


The first time it occurred to me that outdoor stairways could be an important walkability tool for cities was while visiting Edinburgh, Scotland. Throughout that fine city, there are outdoor stairways leading to top tourist attractions, parks, and event locations. In fact many of these staircases act as pseudo streets due to the amount of foot traffic they carry.

Fast forward to more recently, in 2022, I discovered Los Angeles, California is filled with beautiful outdoor urban stairways that interconnect lush residential neighborhoods and link them to nearby commercial districts. The bulk of these stairways can be found in the older and hillier neighborhoods/suburbs like Hollywood Heights, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Downtown LA, Pasadena, and Santa Monica. Some of these stairways have actual formal street names (see photo below), while others have earned nicknames.

Yes folks, we are talking about the same Los Angeles that is often considered as the cradle of America’s car culture. Los Angeles is not alone though. In fact there are a number of American cities have a networks of stairways interconnecting the community by foot. Most are places with hilly or rugged terrain. Among them are Bisbee and Globe-Miami, Arizona; San Francisco Bay Area, California; as well as Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cincinnati, and Portland, Oregon. Meanwhile, several other communities without pre-existing stair networks have established a specific stairway climbing trail for recreational purposes. Let’s take a look at some examples of both.


Bisbee, Arizona

No place in the United States likely has more stairways/steps per capita than Bisbee with an estimated 351 sets. In fact, it is likely that there are more individual stair-steps in the city than residents. Bisbee is a stair climbers dream come true because nearly every part of this amazing city oozes with outdoor stairways. Situated within a narrow canyon, much of Bisbee is built along steep hillsides. During the city’s copper mining boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a vast network of stairways and pathways were established for residents to access their hillside-perched homes. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) updated many stairways in the city from wood to concrete.

Bisbee, Arizona

As the only means of access to home, parking took place along city streets situated above or below the residence, while the staircases were used for getting there. This could mean climbing/descending potential hundreds of steps. A number of of the stairways are named for an important feature or street located along the staircase. Names include Bandshell, Laundry, Theatre, Opera, and Maxfield – home of the longest set of stairs with 181 steps.

Source: bisbee1000.org

Stairways are such a part of the community fabric here that every third weekend in October, for more than three decades, the annual Bisbee 1,000 Great Stair Climb has attracted runners, joggers, hikers, stair-climbers, and walkers to the event. The Bisbee 1,000 Great Stair Climb takes participants along nine of the scenic and historic stairways, as well as connecting paths and streets that criss-cross the city. Meanwhile, the former IronMan Ice race was noteworthy as it re-enacted the carrying of 10 pound blocks of ice with tongs from the street level up 155 stair-steps, as was done a century ago. Additional fresh-air fitness events utilizing the stairways are being planned by Bisbee Vogue, Inc..

Last week, my wife and I climbed and/or descended the entire route of the Great Stair Climb. In fact, over our brief visit we hiked our way on nearly 2,000 outdoor stair-steps throughout this charming historic city. Needless to say, following our walks, we partook the local brewpubs and restaurants to relax and reminisce about our stairway travels through town. Imagine what more than 1,200 participants in the Bisbee 1000 Great Stair Climb brings into this city.

Globe-Miami, Arizona

While not home to as many outdoor stairways as Bisbee, Globe has taken the concept of outdoor stair-climbing to the next level by establishing the Stairizona Trail for walking/hiking/climbing enthusiasts. Three variable length options are available for hiking/climbing and sightseeing this copper mining city. Meanwhile, nearby Miami, Arizona has the impressive Keystone Stairs with 155 steps. Both can provide health and fitness benefits to local residents and visitors alike, while also drawing tourism dollars to the area.

Early planning map for the Stairizona Trail in Globe – Source: globemiamitimes.com

Los Angeles, California

As noted earlier, Los Angeles is filled with delightful outdoor stairs that afford lovely views of the city, its variety of neighborhoods, and in some cases the Pacific Ocean. Many of these were constructed in the 1920s and 30s and remain a charming fixture of this mighty metropolis. Some still have street signs associated with them, as they are in some cases the only way to access hillside homes and apartments.

Taking advantage of the sunny, Mediterranean climate and the plethora of public stairs in the city, the SoCal Stair Climbers meet regularly for group walks at locations across the city/suburbs to tread the variety of public stairways. Their slogan sums it up about the benefits of stair climbing – “Enjoyment, Exercise, and Exploration.” Adding to these, such events also benefit nearby businesses as climbers/hikers will often stop for a snack or a cool drink preceding or after their walk. So maybe, they should add “Economic Enhancement” to their list of “E” benefits.

Source: socalstairclimbers.com

Lastly, the public stairways in and around Los Angeles have spawned the writing/publication of at least three books on the subject. More on stairway climbing books at the conclusion of the blogpost.

San Francisco Bay Area, California

Lyon Street Steps – Sources: moderatelyexcited.instagram.com and sfcurbed.com

Like Los Angeles to the south, the Bay Area is fortunate to have a number of urban staircases to hike, climb, or jog. Particularly lovely are the tiled and painted staircases in San Francisco. Among the best known are the Filbert Streets Stairs, 16th Street Tiled Staircase (see below), Lincoln Park Stairs, and the Lyon Street Steps (see above).

Source: sftourismtips.com

There is some discrepancy in the actual number of public stairways in San Francisco, as sfstairways.com identifies 370 public staircases in the city, while, urbanhikerssf.com has identified more than 900 urban stairways in the city. This may be partially due to how they each defined stairs, because stepped sidewalks could be included either way.

Urban Hiker’s map of public stairways in San Francisco – Source: urbanhikersf.com/sfstairmap

The East Bay region also has a number of stairways rising into the hills of Oakland, Berkeley, and surrounding areas. Oakland alone is home to 220 staircases include the scenic Cleveland Cascade Stairway shown below.

Cleveland Cascade Stairway in Oakland, California – Source: atlasobscura.com

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Map depicting public stairways in the City of Pittsburgh – Source: pittsburghpa.maps.arcgis.com

Few cities in the United States have as hilly of a terrain as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. According to the City Steps Plan webpage, the city has more than 800 sets of steps containing more than 45,000 individual steps! These staircases provide walkable access to transit, shopping, and employment, while also being an excellent (and free) physical fitness tool. In fact, according to a 2017 survey conducted in the city regrind the staircases, the single most common response for using them was “to exercise.” The study also found that 55% of the respondents use the staircases in Pittsburgh, at least once a week.

“Winding up and down the many hills of Pittsburgh are its public staircases. Built largely in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these staircases served as the primary mode of transportation for Pittburgh’s commuting workforce. Pittsburgh has the most public steps of any city in America! As an essential component of an integrated pedestrian network, the steps are an important asset to the city, improving the connections between neighborhoods and encouraging walking and active transportation.”

Source: bikepgh.org


For places that aren’t blessed with an historic public stairway network, the option of recreational stairways is another option. Below are two examples.

Castle Rock, Colorado

Located between Denver and Colorado Springs, Castle Rock has sprung up into a significant city in itself. While traveling through there in October 2022, we decided to visit the city’s Philip S. Miller Park and tackle Challenge Hill. Merely 200 stair-steps up the side of a 178 foot prominence, Challenge Hill is a real test for first timers regardless where you are from. Meanwhile, old hats at traversing this hill climb jog right past over-and-over again, while those visiting from lower altitudes try to regain their breath.

Boyne City, Michigan

In the far-northwest portion of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan is a stair climbing adventure that challenges all others on this list for number of steps. A mind-boggling 462 stair-step quest arises before you at Avalanche Hill in Boyne City. Passing through a lovely forest, these wooden stairs take the climber/hiker to the top of 1,023 foot Avalanche Hill, where outstanding views of Lake Charlevoix and distant Lake Michigan reward the hardy who complete the trek.

An excellent planning and placemaking tool

No one term encapsulates these stairways. Some places use the term “stairway,” while others use “stairs,” “steps,” or “stair-steps.” Regardless, they all refer to the same infrastructure feature. Despite the variety of terms, it is clear that whatever you call them, stairs, etc., they are a terrific placemaking feature for cities and towns of all shapes and sizes. At a minimum, public outdoor stairways provide the following 14 benefits:

  • Walkability/active transportation
  • Pedestrian friendly
  • Connectivity
  • Outdoor fitness
  • Social engagement
  • Economic growth
  • Tourist attractor
  • Equity-building
  • Exploration opportunities
  • Historic, environmental, and scenic opportunities
  • Improved community image and pride
  • Outdoor spaces for art displays
  • Reduced air pollution
  • Reduced car trips and carbon footprint
  • Placemaking

For city planners and public officials, urban stairways can be a boon to promoting walkability and and improving community health. They can also be a terrific tourist draw when located amongst historic scenic, artistic, and/or cultural areas, as well as for recreational tourists seeking new venues for hiking or jogging. When these stairways are situated near or connect to business districts, they provide a great source of customer foot traffic. In his informative book Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles, author Charles Fleming identifies some of the restaurants, coffee shops, museums, and other amenities, located along or close to the 275 staircases in Los Angeles he detailed.

As with any form of infrastructure, it is important to maintain and care for stairway networks. This includes the stair-steps themselves, the landings, railings, lighting, any seating, directional signage, and the access points. It also includes assuring the routes are clear of overgrowth, snow, and debris, as well as providing regular and routine safety/security checks by staff and public safety officials.

In conclusion, any city that has a network of public stairways in its midst should actively pursue programs and funding mechanisms to assure its system is kept in the best possible condition. To do otherwise would be counter-productive to all the previously noted benefits generated by these networks.

An important note from Pittsburgh is that two-thirds of the city”s stairway network are in low to moderate income neighborhoods. As a result, such networks can be an excellent equity-building tool for providing health and fitness opportunities in underserved communities. The stairways can also be a safe, walkable access route to employers, shopping, schools, and/or transit for those who cannot afford motor vehicles. Lastly, as the Covid-10 pandemic clearly demonstrated to all of us, having recreational opportunities (such as walkable outdoor stairways) located nearby is a priceless resource, especially during challenging times.


Fortunately, there are a number of books that have been published on public stairways from across the country. Here are six of them (among others) that can be found through Amazon.com.*

*A small commission is earned from purchases that are made using the above links to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

*A small commission is earned from purchases that are made using the above links to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.


This entry was posted in Active transportation, Advocacy, Alternative transportation, archaeology, architecture, art, book reviews, books, branding, brewpubs, business, cities, civics, coffee shops/cafes, commerce, culture, demographics, diversity, downtown, economic development, economic gardening, Economy, engineering, entertainment, environment, fitness, fun, geography, government, health, Health care, hiking, historic preservation, history, Housing, humanity, infrastructure, land use, landscape architecture, literature, logistics, Maps, Mining, mountains, natural history, nature, new urbanism, pictures, placemaking, planning, product design, recreation, revitalization, shopping, social equity, spatial design, sprawl, Stairway networks, Statistics, sustainability, third places, topography, tourism, traffic, trails, transit, transportation, Travel, urban design, urban planning, walking, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.