A new guidebook takes a different slant on the multi-dimensional city, where malls, parks, tunnels, escalators, roof gardens and more come together in sprawling tiered patterns.

Bewilderment set in when I first moved to Hong Kong. How could one city operate on so many levels? 

A preponderance of skyscrapers -- not to mention overpasses, footbridges and elevated walkways -- led to my snap judgment that Hong Kong was a city in the air. Or, taking into account the many subterranean routes too, at least not one in which residents spent much time at ground level.

Turns out, I'm not the only one to think that way. In fact, a trio of authors with backgrounds in architecture and academia have written a new book, Cities Without Ground, which analyses -- and intricately models with multi-dimensional graphics -- 32 sites across Hong Kong where shopping malls, parks, office tower lobbies, tunnels, escalators, roof gardens and more come together in sprawling tiered patterns. According to Adam Frampton, who co-authored the book with Jonathan D Solomon and Clara Wong, "it's a guidebook in that it takes different sights and applies a [new] way of looking at them."

These places are often little understood or even pondered by locals, let alone visitors, outside of practical context like how to get from one neighbourhood to another or how to avoid the oppressive climate outside. Why? Mainly because the city's composite structure -- a result of hyper-dense construction due to limited developable space amid hilly terrain -- is unintuitive to untrained eyes. What this new book does is make these convoluted networks intelligible and manageable.

Take one of Hong Kong's most well-known attractions, the Big Buddha on Lantau Island. Access to the remote location is via a 5.7km-long airborne cable car, while the statue itself is located up a flight of 240 steep steps. Cities Without Ground has created a diagram that  maps out its various planes, including where elderly locals finish their morning hikes (at the bottom, on the outskirts of the touristy village nearby) and where devout Buddhists meditate (at the top).

Another example: one of the city’s iconic landmarks and a must-see for travellers is the Central Mid-Levels Escalator. Snaking up the side of a hill that starts at sea level in the Central neighbourhood , the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world connects everyone from commuters to tourists to malls, restaurants, office buildings and more along its 800m length. The authors break down the site by elevation: a thick thread of bus routes at the bottom; just above, outposts for tofu, lanterns and costumes; mid-way up, a haven for expats in the SoHo neighbourhood; towards the top; a mosque that sits catty-corner from French-style Café Lavande.

"[These spatial networks] are a form of hyper-efficiency," Frampton explained. "But if you look at how people use [them], you'll find it's an equally valid form of public space." Amid the sterility of chain stores, metro stations and fast food, the authors posit, these passageways create spaces where everyday Hong Kong life simply happens.

The book has attracted attention from the technical, urban-planning-obsessed set, but for the traveller it helps to demystify a complex and multi-layered city, and introduces a sense of familiarity to otherwise hectic surrounds. And isn't that process -- crossing the boundary from unknown to known, strange to common -- what travelling is all about?

Hana R Alberts is the Hong Kong Localite for BBC Travel