Walking and the pedestrian environment
November 25, 2006
On Seattle Rises (Seattle)

Reflections on living atop hills and inventing street rises.

This article is an appendix to the special feature Akasaka on the Rise. In that series, I profiled the named, often historic hillsides of Tokyo's Akasaka neighborhood.

In Tamori's foreword, he references European philosophers in his attempts to relate his thoughts on hills and plateaus.

It's ironic to me, because I find myself struggling to find a term in English to match the very foundation of his book, "saka-michi" (坂道). Either half is easy. Saka is slope or hillside. Michi is street or road. However, if you put them together in Tokyo Japanese, you have a concept that doesn't exist in my lexicon. What's worse, I'm schooled by an interest in urban design and urban planning and it still doesn't help.

I'll approach it from the negatives.

Hill is too big. It's unclear if you're referring to the whole hill or just one side of it.

Slope is the common translation for saka, and used by default for saka-michi. In my mind, and that of architects and urban designers, slope refers to a tilted two-dimensional surface, unlike a one-dimensional road.

House Entrance Steps in SeattleA hillside suffers the same problems of image: it's the entire side of a hill, even worse than a slope. It's a curved surface, narrow on top and broad at the bottom. In a pinch I might go with this one, because "hillside steps" has a very clear image and is used occasionally in planning. "Hillside road" just doesn't sound right, though, and would likely be mistaken for a road cutting laterally along the hill.

Grade was usedin a book I just read, but without the context of something like "the steep grade leading up to", it can be easily misunderstood. I could use grade if I was forced to.

My amateur knowledge almost got me in trouble with "hill climb". It's used to describe a long series of steps leading from Seattle's waterfront up to the Pike Place Market. The problem is, this is the only occurrence of this usage that I can find in the English language. Everything else is about car races up steep mountains - especially Pike's Peak, which might actually be the inspiration for Seattle's climb name.

So I decided on "rise", or "street rise". It doesn't seem like such an odd concept to me, but a cursory web search returns no results with "street rise" as a noun. It was necessary to invent something, I guess, because of the uniqueness of what's captured in the term saka-michi.

Neighborhood Slumping Hillside in SeattleI grew up on top of a hill. My brother and I burned out quite a few clutches in our mom's car, punishing it up long, steep freeway rides from the city or the mall, or just the short jaunts up the street from school. Earlier, we planned our paper route delivery so that we'd only pull the cart up empty, leaving it behind on short side trips to our downhill path. Some of my most vivid early memories are of the bottom of one side of our hill. It was a local low spot, and flooded in heavy rains. Once, I was canoed across by a nearby resident to get me to the babysitter's. On a less drastic occasion, I sped through the water on my bicycle (a favorite after-rain pastime), but my untied shoes got caught in the pedal and I had to walk in the water up to my shins. A friend in high school didn't heed my words of caution, trying to cut through a corner of the flooded intersection. She screamed as water washed over the hood of her pickup, and I just started saying "don't stop don't stop" over and over. Luckily she listened to that, and we pushed our way through, sending a wide wake over desperate families' sandbags.

So it is with a proletarian authority on hills, and the streets that run up them, that I say that there is no uniqueness to the CONCEPT of saka-michi. In the neighborhood and in my family (not to mention transportation department edicts and insurance claims), we would often discuss and think about an inclined segment of road that is bound on either end by flat land.*1

[1. Look, I just gave the first half of a definition of saka-michi!]

Broad Street Rise in SeattleThe difference is HOW we discussed the concept. We would say things like: "Don't go down Sixth, it's gotta be flooded"; "The car died at the top of 509. Come give me a tow"; "My classmate lives just up 143rd from the intersection with Sixth". In Japan - other than the weird cities of Kyoto and Sapporo - the majority of streets have no name. Nowadays, every neighborhood business street is trying to brand its way to recognition, but in the Edo era, only major intercity highways were given names. Otherwise, just the most memorable and significant stretches of road were memorialized. Significantly, within the city of Edo those were the steep streets that had a story to tell.*2 Just like me growing up centuries later and half the world away, the residents of Edo's Yamanote area developed a shorthand to refer to these hazardous and eventful roads, but had no street names to fall back on.

[2. Look! That's the distinction between your run-of-the-mill unnamed steep street and one that has a name!]

From an anthropological perspective, it's probably significant that once my brother started driving I don't have many strong memories of hilled streets, or what I'm calling street rises, except in relation to cars. Cars with hot brake shoes, cars with empty brake lines, cars with failed clutches, cars with flat tires, cars with no gas, cars with no guts. After adolescence, it is the rare American that has an intimate relationship with more than one or two street rises.

Sea Street project in SeattleFrom a planning perspective, there's a growing movement to unleash design on short segments of inclined streets, like the aforementioned Pike Street Hillclimb, or Seattle's Vine Street or Beacon Bluff. What's missing is a unifying concept and a new lexicon to spread these ideas out into the communities to grab ahold of. To them, I give the world "street rise". No more must they call themselves a sloped street right of way.

Posted by Rob Ketcherside at November 25, 2006 6:31 AM
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