Awnings: Shelter from the Storm

It’s one of the rare rainy seasons in Minnesota, and for that rarity I personally am glad having grown up in a climate more like Seattle’s and Portland’s than the Twin Cities. Climate is an important motivator for infrastructure decisions. I have to confess that the climatic explanation for why we have skyways is not entirely crazy. It’s not entirely persuasive either.

But let’s get back to the rain, and I have to confess that this post is motivated by a parochial comparison. I grew up with awnings along major pedestrian thoroughfares, and I’m puzzled why we don’t have them here. We have rain, we have sun, we have snow, and awnings attached to commercial buildings could significantly enhance the pedestrian environment along Nicollet Mall and Washington Ave, for example.

Here are some examples of what I mean. This is Bourke St Mall in Melbourne. It’s Melbourne’s Nicollet Mall (though they have two tram lines running through it at grade without any safety barrier), and this photo is right outside Melbourne’s Dayton’s, which they call Myer. It’s raining, but you can see that with the exception of one solitary soul with an umbrella most everyone else is dry underneath an awning that extends maybe 12-15 feet from the building. The pedestrian traffic is 4 wide under the awning.

Photo by flickr user ngmorieson

Bourke St Mall, Melbourne, Australia. Photo by flickr user ngmorieson

Auckland’s Queen St on a rainy summer’s day

Here is another example, from Auckland’s Queen St, their Nicollet Mall. Notice again that the awnings extend the entire width of the pavement sidewalk, allowing 4-5 people to walk under the awning.

Bond St in Wellington: Awnings enhance sidewalk cafes

It’s not just main streets, the Nicollet Malls of the Antipodes, that have awnings. This example is from Bond St in Wellington, a little off the main drag. The sidewalk is a bit narrower here, but the awning is probably 8-10 feet wide and extends all the way to the edge of the sidewalk.

Intersection shelters in Wellington

Another form of pedestrian shelter that you can now see in cities around Australia and New Zealand are intersection shelters. This one is in Wellington, which has more than its fair share of the South Pacific’s rain. But you can find them in other places, this was just one that I photographed.

Awnings are particularly good for rain, but I can tell you from personal experience that they also provide shade from the summer sun. We have some fairly warm days in Minnesota in the summer, and a little shelter from the direct sun would make outside dining and walking around downtown just that little bit more pleasant. Now, this is just a theory, but they would probably also work to shelter pedestrians from falling snow. So, why don’t we have awnings in Minneapolis? Interestingly, some old photos show one Nicollet Mall building with decent awnings, but these seem to have vanished since 1968.

Nicollet Mall at 7th St in 1968 (Photo: MN Historical Society)

The answer as to why we don’t have awnings off our commercial buildings turns out, in Minneapolis at least, to be largely about the ordinance. Awnings are theoretically allowed, but regulated to the point of not being worth it. Here’s the relevant text:

Projection. Awnings may extend over public property not more than seven (7) feet from the face of a supporting building but no portion shall extend nearer than two (2) feet from the face of the nearest curbline measured horizontally. In no case shall the awning extend over public property greater than two-thirds (2/3) of the distance from the property line to the nearest curbline in front of the building site.

The key restriction is that awnings can’t be any wider than seven feet, which allows no more than 2 people to pass comfortably. Scroll up and see 4 or 5 people passing comfortably on Melbourne and Auckland streets under awnings. Some sidewalks in neighborhood commercial districts are not much wider than 7 feet, but then the ordinance restricts awnings from ever covering the entire sidewalk. Saint Paul’s code does not appear to restrict awnings in the same way, so the code is not the entire issue. A will to make a pleasant pedestrian environment is also lacking.

It’s not clear what public purpose the Minneapolis restriction on awnings is serving. Clearly awnings have some interaction with public infrastructure and utilities, and the specifics of their placement would require approval. But the current regulations make it impossible to provide useful cover from rain, sun, and snow, to pedestrians on Minneapolis streets. Awnings could make our sidewalk cafes more pleasant, and our sidewalk interactions just that little bit more protected from the elements without removing us from the outside entirely. It’s legally easier to build a skyway than it is to build an awning in Minneapolis. Let’s change that.

Evan Roberts

About Evan Roberts

Evan Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Population Studies and the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches and researches demography, labor and urban issues. He counts it as a successful week if he has run more miles than he has driven. Connect on twitter @evanrobertsnz or now Mastodon