The Nicollet Walk: A Stairway to the Skyway


The proposed interventions to the Minneapolis Skyway system were a subtle, yet powerful element of the James Corner Field Operations’ proposal for the Nicollet Mall Redesign.  The proposal explicitly included five distinct interventions that while in some cases are relatively superficial, demonstrate a new attitude about interfacing the skyway with the street.  The skyways have been a hobgoblin of many downtowns since they emerged in the 60’s and 70’s as a prescribed remedy for the declining importance of urban downtowns against the growing popularity of indoor shopping malls and white flight. Minneapolis, with its 8+ miles of skyway has had reams of ink written about its history, its pros (shelter, higher rents, architectural landmarks) and its cons (kills street life, ruins retail businesses, is confusing/claustrophobic), and what we should do about them (tear them down, seize them with eminent domain, improve access).    Ambivalence about the future of the skyways has resulted in a strange tension about future investment and development.  Yet, urbanists both international (Jan Gehl) and local (Joe Urban) have advocated for their curtailment or removal.  Mayor R.T. Rybak recently went on the record saying “I don’t think we need any more skyways. I don’t think that they help at all.”  Yet, planned expansions to the system keep popping up to connect new developments and large venues such as Target Field and the new Vikings Stadium.  Based on online surveys and opinion polling, Minneapolitans overwhelmingly support the Skyways.  Most cite the painfully cold weather as the main reason for their support, but people also feel that they enhance the identity and character of the downtown area.  Gehl describes this attitude as being behind the times and counterproductive to the vital street life that he claims differentiates world class cities.  Refreshingly, the Field Operations proposal embraces the skyways and draws from the contemporary urban space playbook to create new landmarks and a more coherent network of public spaces downtown.


While the meat of the design proposal relates to the streetscape interventions and the re-branding of the mall into “Live, Play, and Work” districts, the skyways and their intersections with the street inform the placement of several key space making elements of the plan.  As an aside, the grove plantings of the plan (see above) will be a particularly nice way of adding more life to the streetscape of Nicollet Mall, which currently is a bit too cluttered with stuff.  Anyhow, while some of the proposed interventions are superficial derivations of public art and placemaking strategies that have been prominent features of other projects, these designs would surely be developed further in the implementation process.  The designs, while spatially specific, still feel more like prototypical templates that can be adaptively applied to the skyway system as a whole.

Mirror Cut

The mirror on the bottom of the skyway is reminiscent of the Cloud Gate AKA “The Bean” in Chicago, but not nearly as cool.  Considered as a prototype, this speaks to the opportunity to treat the skyways as living frames for the streetscape, or as armatures for public art.


The Cloud Gate – Courtesy of


Skyway Balcony – Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations

The proposed skyway balcony is reminiscent of the 10th Avenue Overlook on the High Line in NYC, that other Field Operations project you might have seen.


10th Avenue Overlook – Courtesy of  Michael Keenan

This move has the potential to establish individual skyways as destinations, urban stages and places of repose.  The current skyway design standards for Minneapolis keep things pretty demure, but this sets a slightly more adventurous precedent for how the skyways themselves can enliven the streetscape.


The Crystal Stair – Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations

The Crystal Stair, designed by Julie Snow Architects, creates a public landmark that works as both a gathering space and as a direct street access to the skyway.  Likewise, you can see in the rendering a proposed elevator on the opposite side of the street.  This kind of intervention has been promoted in the Downtown 2025 Plan and many architectural design studios at the University of Minnesota.   But the owners of the skyways have traditionally been against creating direct street to skyway connections because of potential security and maintenance concerns.    However, a major advantage is that world class design teams can push the envelope and get people to step out of their comfort zone in the name of design.

Yellow Ribbon

The Yellow Ribbon – Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations

The Yellow Ribbon Wayfinding system seems to be about helping users navigate the maze like skyway and to improve how it relates to the streetscape below.  Even for an experienced user, the skyway can be very disorienting.  To reliably get from one place to another requires either practiced knowledge or a map, and finding an exit can be frustrating to say the least.  When users enter a new building they experience a shift of style that reflects the architecture and design taste of its era and the quality of directional signage is highly variable.  While there is a certain charm and novelty to the disconnected nature of the skyways, the incoherency of the network is problematic.  The proposal advocates for yellow color coding of the carpets or walls of the skyway to help the user stay parallel with Nicollet Avenue and incorporates more regular interfaces with the street.  Like many of the other ideas in this proposal it is not entirely novel or groundbreaking, but it is well synthesized into the plans for Nicollet Mall and downtown as a whole. In addition, this approach would be easy to overlay onto the entire skyway system without necessitating the exercise of eminent domain or major architectural surgery.

In this respect, The Field Operations proposal struck the right chord between high level design intervention and a fundamental respect for the form of Minneapolis’s Downtown.  The skyways can be viewed as a vestigial organ designed to protect downtown against suburban competition that no longer serves its purpose. However, I see it as more of a conjoined twin to the streetscape.  It grew and evolved organically based on its inherent appeal and functionality into one of the world’s premier examples of the “layered city” phenomenon.  Naturally, the success of this approach is highly dependent upon the ability of the city to double the residential population of downtown by 2025 (see the plan link above).   The overarching goal should be to not view the two networks as separate beings competing for resources, but to make strategic interventions that will blur the lines between them by creating coherent nodes and landmarks that will anchor both systems.  This approach, demonstrated in the Field Operations proposal, begins to re-interpret the skyways in ways that will help make Downtown Minneapolis someplace really unique.