Skyways and Survival

Blogger: Rachel Riopel, Digital Design Managing Principal | Minneapolis, MN, USA
February 14, 2012

It's cold.

I don't mean it's chilly, like its 45 degrees... I mean it's the downright freeze your fingers off, can't keep warm outside even under layers of Gore-Tex and wool while drinking hot chocolate sort of cold. 

As soon as I can, I duck into the warm interior of a building, and I instantly appreciate a well-designed enclosure.

In Minneapolis, there are eight miles of connected skyways, making it one of the largest systems in the world. It is an internal, climate-controlled circulation path that connects many amenities and services for those that live in and visit the city without requiring any direct interaction with the elements. Beginning with the first piece of the skyway constructed in 1969, relief from the elements became an integral piece of the urban landscape for the Twin Cities. Now, neither rain nor shine, nor frost-biting cold nor scorching heat and humidity can keep people from moving about the city freely.  We have designed a solution that serves us well.

As we Minnesotans were thrust into the reality of winter, the thermometer hit a frost-biting -11°F. A timely article in the local Star Tribune ("City's Maze of Skyways: A Dead End?" Roper, Eric.) shared the opinions of several designers, community members and leaders on the merits of what we call the “skyway system” here in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN).  The article quotes a city official as saying "(I) would not support the development of any new skyways in the city" and a resident saying "It (the skyway system) makes our lives a lot easier." Fundamentally, there are two opposing arguments: one argues that the skyways are choking out the life of the urban streetscape by drawing the pedestrian into a visible, yet often confusing-to-access maze with an entirely separate "streetscape in the sky." The other argues that by connecting residential, commercial, services, and entertainment, the skyway system is the best thing since sliced bread, allowing those with limited abilities and handicaps to safely navigate the downtown sector without complication.

While not all skyways are as elegantly designed as they could be, or should be—their entrances can be drab, nearly invisible to the street viewers, and their internal way-finding can often be lacking—I truly believe the benefits outweigh the costs. I would caution that simply because we have grown weary of a once novel and thrilling design solution, we try not to "let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Let's take the positives and take steps to address the negatives. This public debate has revealed one of the very challenges that designers must rise up to meet: the challenge of blending two equally important desires without allowing one to compromise the other.

This is a challenge designers are born to face. So, Designers... suit up! Looks like there’s work to do.

(And if you're doing site research this time of year, be sure to don your parka and boots... unless of course you'll be staying in the skyways.)

Images courtesy of Rachel Riopel Wiley

Reader Comments (1)

It is a design conundrum to determine which is the true "street level" in the Twin Cities.
Also a social observation of what "class" of person is on the ground and what "class" of person walks in the sky.
Providing ground access to the skyway would bring a new socioeconomic diversity to the skyway system.

Excellent post!

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