Skyways Aren’t About the Weather


One of the 'retro-fit' skyway spaces. These are often the bleakest, and most confusing.

The recent back and forth about the skyway system has been really interesting for me to follow, as the debate over the proper role of the skyways has long been one of the more frustrating topics I’ve covered over at my website. Inevitably, when I suggest to people I know who work downtown that the skyways are a big problem for the city, they scoff and disagree. People who use the skyway system really seem to like it.

The real question about it, however, should be: what effect does the skyway system have on the ground level retail environment, on the public spaces and sidewalks of Minneapolis? To answer that question, we have to use our imaginations a bit, to try and guess what the city might look like if the skyways had never been built.

(One possible scenario is something like downtown Seattle, which to my eyes has a vibrant, legible, and human scale downtown core.)

One of the entrances to the skyway system. These kinds of entrances do not seem "public" at all, and exclude many users.

Today I posted a paper I wrote a few years ago for a class in the Landscape Architecture department about the Minneapolis skyway system and public space over at my website, Twin City Sidewalks. (I didn’t want to post it here, because its long and boring.)

Here are the key points:

  • As David points out in his paper, the skyway system evolved slowly over time, growing from one or two links to a large complex network. This slow evolution means that there is very little ‘uniformity’ or rationality to how the system runs, and to where it runs. It’s confusing, and there’s no getting around that.
  • Keeping people out of the cold weather wasn’t always the rationale for the skyways. Indeed, as Jack Byers’ really useful dissertation points out, the first suggestion for the first skyway was to be open air, exposed to the elements. Weather wasn’t the concern at all.
  • The skyways are a highly ambiguous mix of public and private space. The rules are unclear. This leads to confusion and problems.
  • The skyway systems segregate the downtown pedestrian population into two separate groups. It is literally social stratification.
  • (I also draw a parallel between the skyways and Baron Haussmann’s famous remodeling of Paris in the 1860s.)

Sam pointed out that opinions are beginning to change, at least in the parts of the downtown that are less focused on appealing strictly to office workers. Indeed, the recent trend of patio dining and farmer’s markets on Nicollet Mall, or the activity around the North Loop, Guthrie theater, Peavy Plaza, or the Warehouse District all point to the appeal of street-level public space, with all its mix of populations and activities.

A locked bathroom door in the skyway system.

In doing research for that paper, I remember coming across reference to a plan to remodel Nicollet Mall that was focused on creating grand entrances to the skyway system from the street level, large public staircases that would be immediately legible to the public as ways to access the second-story pedestrian realm.

Well, I’d have to dig through my notes for a while to find it, but I recall that this plan got shot down by the business community. My hunch is that downtown property owners don’t really want the public coming into the skyway level of their buildings. These spaces are designed for, and overwhelmingly cater to, the population of office workers and folks who “live” in the skyway system (attached condos). Anyone who ‘doesn’t belong’ to those groups doesn’t really feel welcome.

(For example, see my interview with Viv Corringham, a sound artist who completed a large project on the Minneapolis skyway system.)

At the same time, I’m not swayed by David’s suggestion that we retrofit the skyways. There’s no money to do it, and it would involve some incredible amounts of remodeling of old buildings. It’ll never happen.

The bleak streetscape underneath the skyway system.

One of the key problems, as both David and Sam point out, is that the skyway system is only legible and understandable to people who are “used” to it, office workers who park in a ramp and work in a particular building, and “know their route” through the maze. For anyone else, its impossibly confusing.

This alone means that it becomes an exclusive space, a system in which the majority of the Minneapolis citizenry would feel excluded and unwelcome.

Why not simply re-focus efforts in downtown Minneapolis on the very legible, understandable, and public spaces we already have: the public sidewalks. While they’re not original or modern, public sidewalks are a time-tested way of pedestrians using public space in cities. As the sidewalks of Pompeii attest, they’ve been around a while. They work. People understand how to use them, how to navigate them. They’re not privately owned (most of the time). I highly recommend sidewalks!

A woman, trapped in the skyway labyrinth, gazes longingly at the sidewalk below.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.