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.

10 thoughts on “Skyways Aren’t About the Weather

  1. Karen L. Rosar

    The author has some thoughtful comments but is incorrect in asserting that skyways are used only by office workers. I am a Downtown resident. I prefer the street although there are times when the weather is cold and sidewalks are icy that I do not hesitate to take the skyways. I like having the option. It allows me to go out regardless of the weather. Additionally there are still too many times when car drivers are not focused on pedestrians in intersections and as such skyways provide a good alternative.

    Seniors, guests to Minneapolis, people with disabilities, families and many other groups use the skyways.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I'm curious why you prefer the street? When is it preferable? What do you like about it, v. the skyways?

      To me, icy sidewallks, and sidewalks spaces poorly designed for pedestrians, elderly, and the disabled are the problem. 50 weeks out of the year, its perfectly enjoyable and pleasant to walk outside.

  2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg (Joe Urb

    Bill, good point about retrofitting skyways – it is expensive, like building skyways in the first place. Just think if we valued the sidewalks and could sink those dollars in to the true public realm instead?

    Does anyone notice that the best public realm in downtown is the southern end of Nicollet Mall, a section of street largely devoid of skyway crossings? To me, that is not just a coincidence….

  3. Ian Bicking

    Most downtowns have cultural deadspots in the areas where office workers outnumber other people. Lower Manhattan is not very lively, the financial district in Chicago is busy until 6pm and then it's empty, and it's even more normal for this to be the default for all of downtown (St. Paul?) South Nicollett Mall isn't dominated by office buildings and 9-5 residents; and it's very nice, but it's working with different source material.

    I don't think the skyway is capturing the population that would make downtown vibrant at the street level. And I think it's serving and involving the office worker population in downtown life more than most downtowns – so long as you have the modest expectations which are appropriate for office workers. Maybe there's better ways to do it, but I haven't seen traditional downtown arrangements do any better (at least in cities that bear any resemblance to Minneapolis).

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      again, i would point to Seattle as a downtown roughly same size / economic arrangement, but w/ a superior streetscape and street life (w/out skyways).

      (they do have a monorail, though, which is almost as ludicrous.)

  4. Pingback: Joe Urban » Blog Archive » Those Skyways Won’t Go Down Without a Fight

  5. BA

    Great post, and post on the sidewalks site. It would be really insightful to see a study similar to William Whyte's study of New York's plazas and bryant park to determine how people actually use the skyways. When people go to lunch via skyway, for instance, how far do they travel? I would guess a majority of people only go one or two blocks away, an easily travelled distance in even very cold weather. And how about parking? Do they park in their building, a block away and then walk in the skyway, or are a large number of people parking many blocks away and then using skyways to walk to the office? (For those who do, are there enough to help support a downtown circulator bus to essentially do the same thing in a climate controlled bus? Or one that already may exist on Nicollet?) How many downtown residents work downtown, and walk to work via skyway in the colder months, as well as the milder months? Do they take direct routes, or ones that could be taken more directly via mass transit? How do the streets function, alternatively, in the later hours when skyway access is more restricted or not used?

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      that would be interesting! i'd bet that even on nice days, many people use the skyways simply because its more convenient to do so. that's a depressing thought in my book, like watching baseball in the Metrodome.

      1. Faith

        Yes, many people use the skyways even on nice days because it is more convenient, myself included. All of the lunch food is at the skyway level near my office. I would not make a lot of sense to go down to street level, across the street and back up to the 2nd level. On nice days, I would rather be outside.

        I work closer to the northern end of Nicollet and typically find it faster to walk all the way down to the southern end rather than wait for a bus since the 10 min frequency of bus service during the day is about the same as the walk time. In Denver, the circulator bus runs so frequently – every 90 seconds – so it makes a trip to the opposite end of the 16th St mall for lunch possible.

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