Monday, January 04, 2010

Gerbil Tubes

An urban planning critic once commented on the extensive skyway system in Minneapolis (and St. Paul) as akin to seeing people scurrying through Habitrail gerbil tubes. This was obviously not flattery. I suppose to someone who had never spent January in Minneapolis the concept of second floor connectivity between downtown buildings would appear to be exactly that - gerbil tubes.

As I walked through the skyway system this morning I heard a young lady - who was clearly new to the experience - asking another skyway denizen for directions. He explained that since not all buildings were directly connected you sometimes had to go four blocks to go one. She exclaimed "at least I won't have to go out there."

Walking three blocks from the parking ramp to my office I thought of that fool and his derogatory comment. It was 9 below zero and the wind was whipping up out there. At times like this I love the the skyway!

Over on 7th Street, between Marquette and 2nd Avenues in downtown Minneapolis, the city's first skyway bridge was built. Now ubiquitous in both downtowns this particular 2nd story span was revolutionary when it debuted in 1962. The skyways connecting buildings in the downtown areas often surprise visitors. By protecting downtown workers and shoppers from the elements, the skyways have evolved into little cities within cities. For vast swathes of the city the usual street level commerce has moved up to the second floor. Restaurants, shops and services become available to pedestrians from all over the city without having to brave the cold and snow.

Additionally, for those who live downtown in high rise condominiums the skyways make it easy to go from store to store without ever venturing outside. The skyway system has made it possible to live, eat, bank, work and shop without going into the bitterly cold open air. There is a nascent arcology budding here in downtown Minneapolis.

With every positive there is of course a negative. For Minneapolis and even more so in St. Paul street level commerce is almost non existent. Save for the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis most store fronts are in the skyways. This I think will prevent Minneapolis or St. Paul from ever becoming truly great urban experiences. But then again it's cold for 6 months a year and the skyways bustle on a daily basis. This would never do in New York or Boston where street life is the life of the city, but it seems to work for us. We get the street musicians and the occasional hustle, but very little street crime or the nitty gritty...

The other thing that makes the skyway system work here where it probably wouldn't work elsewhere is the relativiely small central downtown districts. Thinking of Chicago or Manhattan where the vastness of the skyscraper district makes an interconnected skyway system impractical at best. Besides what would snooty urban planning critics say if their "great" cities opened a Habitrail of their own?