Skyways: Helping or hurting downtown?

Downtown Minneapolis. (Photo by  Michael Hicks )

Downtown Minneapolis. (Photo by Michael Hicks)

Yesterday, Sarah Kobos wrote about trees as a way to make walking more pleasant and protect walkers from the elements like scorching heat. Here's another method for shielding pedestrians from the elements: Build separate covered walkways apart from the sidewalk altogether.

The city I grew up in, Minneapolis, MN was filled with skyways in its downtown. I enjoyed the use of these when I worked downtown a couple years ago, just like millions of employees and shoppers before me. During the cold winters, it was nice to be able to leave my office for lunch and not have to bundle up in a coat, hat and boots. The skyway system is big enough in Minneapolis that you could get some serious exercise just walking through the shopping centers, banks and office buildings on your lunch break. It has its benefits.

But skyways also have a major drawback: A recent Salon article entitled, "Cities Face New Urban Problem: Their Own Skywalks" contemplates this problem, using the skyways in Des Moines, IA as an example:

When the skywalk was built in the 1970s, the idea was to protect office workers from the frigid winters in Iowa’s largest city and encourage businesses to resist the pull to suburban office parks. It was an instant success.

But one era’s brainstorm has become the next generation’s headache as cities are now desperate to add life to downtown. For them, the question is how to create lively streets when no one walks outside anymore.

As the article puts it, the skywalks have become "too effective." Their goal was to prevent people from having to venture outside and they have thoroughly succeeded. The problem is that now street-level businesses receive little foot traffic in what should be a bustling neighborhood. Sidewalks languish unused and empty. Another issue that's been raised about skyways is that they are usually private, meaning that building owners can bar entry to buskers, homeless people, folks who linger too long, and anyone else the owners don't want to deal with. They are also often challenging to navigate and access, meaning they mostly get used by people who know the area well and work there--less by tourists or visitors.

Here's a reflection on the problem of skyways from a downtown Des Moines business owner:

Max Stanco opened the Lord Midas clothing store downtown last spring to take advantage of people moving back downtown, but said the empty streets are killing him.

“If the customers don’t come in and shop, we can’t stay much longer,” he said.

The skywalks are an exclusive zone that cost millions of dollars to create and have siphoned business and activity away from the streets. Now some cities are trying to bring pedestrians back onto the street and make better use of the existing public sidewalks. From the Salon article:

Cincinnati decided to dismantle half its one-mile plus system and Baltimore has taken down seven bridges, with plans to remove two more, to push people back onto the streets. Minneapolis, which is spending $50 million to overhaul its glitzy Nicollet Mall downtown, is being urged by some residents to do the same. Spokane, Washington, which has one the most extensive systems, is turning away from any further expansion.

It's an open question whether the removal of skyways will indeed return activity to the street. Perhaps people will stay inside more often instead of going out. There are also the businesses that have cropped up within the skywalk system that may suffer from their removal.  I couldn't find much research about the effect of skyway removal, so time will tell whether these proposed removal projects are successful.

The bottom line is that concentrating economic activity in one area--the street--versus segregating it into one area for white collar office workers and one for the occasional tourist or wanderer, is likely to have a positive impact on the overall viability of a mid-size downtown. 

Please share your thoughts on skywalks in the comment section.

(Top photo by ccyyrree)

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