When it comes to skyways I’m an ingénue.
I moved to Minneapolis in January but didn’t venture onto a skyway until May, when I met someone for lunch who works downtown. Although I’ve lived in several major U.S. cities, I was uncomfortable exploring the city’s labyrinth of overhead tunnels without a guide.
Which is precisely why I risk offering comment in the ongoing debate about this legendary system (“A farewell to skyways,” April 23; “Skyways provide the vital lifeline for downtown,” April 28; etc.).
I’d gone downtown numerous times to attend meetings, even bid a quiet farewell to Macy’s. As I walked the streets in the numbing cold, I found myself looking up with a tinge of envy at pedestrians scurrying between buildings.
Just how did they get up there? I wondered. Are these public or private spaces?
For new residents and others, I’m sure, it can be daunting to figure out how to navigate the skyway system. Where are the entry and exit points? Could a person get caught in one building without access to another? How does one know where to go? Are there specific hours?
I know now there are online maps. But like a lot of folks, I don’t always plan ahead when I set out to walk. One of the joys of urban life is exploring, and a lot of us like to do so without apps. Without consistent street-level signage, however, spontaneously interacting with the city’s high-wire sidewalks is virtually impossible.
I’ve read about residents’ concerns that the skyways have dampened the city’s vitality and speculation that they’ve even caused the demise of downtown retail stores. And it is true that during those cold months when I walked downtown the sidewalks were largely empty, aside from some tourists, homeless people and bewildered newcomers like me.
But at the risk of alienating business and other leaders who are steeped in the city’s history (I found the “skyway avoidance society” to be not only a brilliant marketing concept but downright funny), it is frankly hard to fathom the idea of dismantling such a complex system that the city’s residents and workers rely on. Apparently, the expense of even retrofitting is hard to manage.
Perhaps, rather than demonizing the skyways (and honestly, it must be acknowledged that much larger market forces are at play in the closing of retail stores in cities throughout the U.S.), they can be brought into the fold, so to speak, of the urban streetscape.
The key to enlivening downtown streets may well be in focusing efforts on better integrating the sidewalks and the skyway system. This means starting with coherent, universal and engaging signage that invites everyone in and helps them navigate. It means treating the skyways more like public spaces, similar to city streets, open to visitors, newcomers and longtime Twin Cities residents, whether homeless or not.
City leaders and business owners could promote the full range of walking options: Yes, embrace the cold, and don’t forget that wind, but also remind pedestrians that a benefit of the Twin Cities is we can choose to walk on city streets or skyways and use them interchangeably.
There’s so much creative talent here. Have a contest to design images or icons that clearly tell us how to go up and down, in and out, making the skyway and streetscape a truly seamless system.
Why not give the skyways a shout-out? Create an annual skyway celebration that marries the overhead tunnels to city streets. Invite the whole city to come downtown and play on a Saturday or Sunday.
With miles of skyway, a 5K would be easy to organize. How about a downtown treasure hunt that utilizes the streets and skyways? Some smart nonprofit could team up with private sector partners to turn it into a fundraiser.
Maybe looking at the system through a new pedestrian’s eyes will reveal opportunities otherwise unseen.
Suzanne Donovan lives in Minneapolis.