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

22 thoughts on “Awnings: Shelter from the Storm

  1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    I’m glad you wrote about this. I recall this being by you in the past in the comments or the forums and it stuck with me.

    Good awnings are a part of good public spaces. I hope this building code gets updated to remove any unreasonable barrier to make them.

  2. Wayne

    I’m willing to bet the restriction on how close to the curb it comes has something to do with cars, like they need an extra 2 feet of clearance on the sidewalk because they need ALL the room. Or maybe garbage trucks or street sweepers are the excuse, because they clearly also need to jump the curb and further debase our sad pedestrian spaces.

    Your point about no one caring about the pedestrian environment is pretty spot-on, though. Minneapolis and St Paul are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to creating and maintaining an urbane pedestrian realm (especially Minneapolis, St Paul is at least sort of trying lately).

    1. Stuart

      I imagine it has much more to do with leaving room for all of the “sidewalk furniture” (street signs, overhead lighting, stoplights, control boxes, etc).

  3. Steven Prince

    Gotta disagree with the idea of creating sidewalk wide awnings along Nicollet Mall. We have short summers and cold (but sunny) winters, sunlight is a much more precious amenity than shade or rain protection. I find the photos from Wellington particularly depressing and cave like.

    When it’s cold people want to be in the sun. Sidewalk wide awnings are going to drive walkers off the mall and into the skyways. In the summer we would have to trade rain protection for shade, Most would choose the sun. We’d also have to give up trees and flowers on the mall if it was covered with awnings.

    Comparing Wellington’s June to our November is instructive – they get twice as many days of precipitation, 17 compared to our 8, and less sunlight, 3.3 hours v. our 3.8.

      1. Steven Prince

        When it had buses lots of folks did. Even now.
        Awnings to the curb would make it a lot less appealing in the fall and spring as well.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      Awnings do not need to block sunlight, you can make them from transparent/translucent materials.

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      That need not be a problem. Awnings can be retractable so that they are out during rain or snow or when it’s really hot and folded up on nicer days when people want to enjoy the sun.

      1. Steven Prince

        Not sure awnings that extend to the curb could be easily retractible, certainly the smaller ones you see on the the Young Quinlavin or Medical Arts Building could be designed that way.

  4. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Awnings are also great for cafés. Most people don’t like to eat with direct sunlight in their eyes or overheating them nor are uncovered spaces useable during rain or snow. The French Café umbrella is nice but mostly doesn’t do the trick (which is why you mostly only see them in France in tourist areas and see awnings most everywhere else).

    I’ve got a collection of photos of outdoor eating areas in the Twin Cities that are vacant on hot days. These exact same places will be packed on cloudy days when it’s 75f but too hot, too much sun, rain, or snow drives people inside.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

      You raise a good point, Walker. I really dislike a lot of sidewalk seating when it is in direct sun, so no wonder they sit empty on otherwise nice days.

      I’ve really struggled with our fickle weather/climate here. It’s easy for Jan Gehl to boast about lengthening the Copenhagen outdoor seating season from three to 10 months or whatever. That is wonderful and a very important part of civic life. But we have harsher conditions. Depths of winter in Copenhagen involve less snow and milder weather then here.

      We get Siberia weather and we get Houston weather. We also get more wind than either, something awnings don’t help with. It wasn’t lost on me, sitting at a Paris café last month, that while I needed a light jacket and sweater for a 55 degree morning, it wasn’t particularly windy, and otherwise very pleasant. Plus, in two months nobody would sit outside in Minneapolis, whereas in Paris it will still be 40 at night and 50 in the day, so another layer is all one needs. So really, the problem we face here is trying to accommodate for every season and every condition.

      Should we have more sidewalk/patio awnings? Probably. Should we offer blankets for a longer outdoor dining season? Yes!

      The added benefit of cool weather outdoor seating is the ice in your drink doesn’t melt as fast!

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Good points. Awnings do help a bit with wind simply because they don’t blow over (like my umbrella @ Paninoes did a couple of weeks ago). 🙂

        Wind blocks are common outside the U.S.; roll down clear plastic, glass, plexiglass, etc. One place I eat at in Amsterdam a lot has these wooden 1mx1m wooden planters lining their outdoor seating. When the wind kicks up they pull pieces of 1mx1m plexiglass out of them to mount on top.

        Green Mill in Shoreview recently built a new patio with a permanent roof over it and roll down clear plastic for wind & cold. Unfortunately they also put TV’s out there but that’s another topic (and they’ve had enough complaints that it sounds like they’re planning to remove them). It works in a wide variety of weather.

        Black Forest Inn has a pull across cover for their patio that seems to work well though I’m not sure how it does in heavy rain or snow. I’m also a huge fan of opening the fronts of buildings like a number of places along Grand have done (picture post upcoming).

        I think Europeans are also a bit hardier than we are. We’ve become very accustomed to turning the heat up to 70 and the AC down to 69 (or restaurants turn AC down to 65 in the summer causing people to carry jackets and sweaters in when its 90f outside) in our homes and cars. Europeans spend a lot more time outside all year long so their outdoor seating will be full when it’s 65f while ours will be empty with everyone crammed inside.

        Oh, and a big yes to the blankets!

  5. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Have we gone too free-market with what we allow to be built? Developers generally don’t want to spend any more money than necessary to attract tenants so things like awnings, good architecture, appealing facades, and a welcoming sidewalk presence get short shrift.

    Would good form based codes help?

  6. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    I would be curious to know when the Minneapolis awning rules were written and what the intent was. Eight foot height minimum seems too high; a couple cafe’s I sat at in Paris (you are damn right I’m namedropping!) had awnings that were no higher than six feet. And they retracted to cover either some or all of the tables, providing preference unless in rain.

    I can only imagine the seven foot distance from the building has something (?) to do with snow load.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

      And by “intent” I mean if part of the intent of our zoning code was “to increase human comfort,” we might get some better rules on various things like awnings, and doors. Of course, it might also result in more skyways, so perhaps we shouldn’t focus on human comfort.

  7. Evan RobertsEvan

    Glad to have sparked a lively discussion from a twitter thought I had several months ago.

    If you spend too much time looking at old photos, like this one, it’s pretty obvious there were more awnings in the past. They seemed to be retractable. In the early twentieth century!

    I’m pretty sure that if there was a will and a legal means to do so the technology of today for snow melting and retraction would allow awnings that improved on the ones we used to have. Not hard to imagine that the snow could be melted and drained fairly easily just like the snow is melted off the tops of roofs of commercial buildings without falling on pedestrians.

    No, we might not need the full-on street coverage of the Antipodean downtown, but we sure could use retractable ones for our sidewalk cafes and rainy weeks.

    But the width interacts with the height in terms of comfort. If they are high off the ground they don’t have that cave like feeling that the one photo from Wellington does. Most aren’t like that. Mostly they’re well above your head, and you feel pleasantly protected. Those could easily be permanent.

  8. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    When I officed at CoCo Uptown on Lake Street this past summer, I noticed this a lot. There are trees along that section of Lake, but they’re thin and don’t really provide any shade. Compared to my hometown of Northfield — which has a lot of large, opaque awnings along its downtown street — I feel exposed and uncomfortable.

  9. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Do architects and building owners outside the U.S. have greater consideration for people other than rent paying tenants? Throughout Europe it seems that building owners often feel an obligation to provide for people on the street; with awnings but also an appealing and welcoming building to walk by (vs bland featureless whatever). Is there a greater appreciation for aesthetics by architects and builders in Europe than here?

    1. Evan RobertsEvan Roberts Post author

      One of the things I’ve noticed in historic photos of Minneapolis with awnings is that they are often functioning somewhat to protect goods displayed for sale on the sidewalk. There was clearly a private interest in doing that. Now that we’ve basically banned sidewalk retail as well building owners don’t have the same interest in what happens right outside.

  10. Joe ScottJoe Scott

    Glad you brought up this important topic. The lack of awnings in Minneapolis is very frustrating. You should check out the chapter on shade in Streets for People by Bernard Rudofsky if you haven’t already. There are some photos of street shade from the book in this post of mine from awhile back:

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