Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Skyway or the Highway

I loved the skyways when I worked in downtown Minneapolis - until I had to walk through them after normal business hours. *shudder* Two well-known urban designers think they're a blight on the city.

When two of the world's top urban designers drop in for a visit and come away with the impression that your city — in this case Minneapolis — is a relic of the 1970s, ill-equipped to thrive and compete in a new century, and that its only hope is to tear down its skyways, well, that gets your attention.

"I feel sorry for Minneapolis," said Jan Gehl, the celebrated Danish architect whose work around the world has linked the rising importance of good public spaces to a city's success.

Thirty years ago, Minneapolis was thought to be a leader among winter cities. But taking people off the streets and putting them upstairs, "under glass," hasn't worked in Minneapolis or anywhere else, Gehl said, to the point that Minneapolis is no longer "up to the beat of the world-class cities of the 21st century."

Gil Penalosa, a noted public parks developer in both Latin America and Canada, said that the skyways lend a defensive, pessimistic air to the downtown core when, in reality, they are needed for only a few weeks of the year. "They suck the public life out of the city," he said.

Given the fat chance that Minneapolis will remove its eight miles of skyways, both men agreed that finding a solution poses one of the toughest design challenges faced by any city in the world: creating vitality at street level when most foot traffic has been shifted to the second story.

The biggest problem, both said, is that people in Minneapolis don't realize that great cities — even cold cities — are now defined by the vitality of their street life. "People here don't see a crisis," said Gehl. "They don't yet see themselves as behind the times."