09 January 2008

Stitting on an Unstylish Fence

Oh, then one day,
I saw you walkin' down that little one-way
Where, the place I'd catch my ride most everyday
There wasn't a damn thing I could do or say
Up in the skyway
-Paul Westerburg

Jay Wallljasper writes on perhaps the most definitive urban trait of Minneapolis/Saint Paul; the human habittrails we call skyways, and he's of a mind that they are crushing a large part of the livability of our two cities, especially in Winter:

People around the world from Copenhagen to New York are figuring out how to keep things lively throughout the colder months. City streets bustle with festivals and outdoor attractions showing that winter is something to enjoy rather than endure.

In an increasingly globalized economy where businesses and skilled workers now have a choice in where they locate, Frost Belt cities can't afford to appear lifeless for a quarter of the year. Places like Minneapolis can no longer pretend that winter doesn't exist. It is essential to make the city inviting all year, not just when it's warm.

The word skyway more accurately describes a bridge or overhead tram, but never letting proper English get in our way, we do call them skyways 'round here. Anyway, there is a lot to comment on with this topic:

First, I like winter and I like being able to hack it. I can cope, unlike folks who call the Red Cross when the temperature drops to 40 Fahrenheit. I also lament how so many locals become weather wimps, and spend 4 months every year hunched and gloomy. Skyways enable the climatic sissies among us, so for that reason alone, they are evil. On the other hand, average daily high temperature here is significantly colder that in other "winter happy" towns listed by the author, so we should be cut some break for seeking shelter.

Second, the skyways are architecturally vile. They are sterile, square steel tubes that clumsily tie together two different buildings that are less than 100 feet apart in the first place. On the flips side of that - it's hard to wholly describe either downtown as pure. Both cities went on 30-year, postwar, Inqusitionesque "renewals" that resulted in the toppling of many classic and signature buildings. Once wrecking ball had left, the replacments were droll, lifeless monoliths that ignored both the sidewalk stroller and the river that runs through both towns.

As much as I have enjoyed other cites that have a very distinct character (San Francicso, New York, Chicago, Rome . . . Lanesboro), you cannot make somehting what it is not, and you cannot make Minneapolis in to Copenhagen. As much as I think urban planning and municipal politics have been dominated by decades by dullards, I don't exactly cotton to some outa-towner show up and tell us we're doing it all wrong.

That's why (Jan) Gehl is no fan of Minneapolis' skyways. "When you glass in the city, you eliminate the 'bad' days but also all the 'good' days. That is too much of a price to pay. You miss the fresh air, the street life. You may have 20 bad days a year when you want to stay indoors, but 200 good ones you miss. I say you make the city as good as possible for the good days, and that will carry it through on the bad days."
It's a good read, interesting to ponder and makes all good points in principle, but I'm afraid Wallljasper's pleas for us tundra dwellers to drop skyways are akin to telling folks in Edmonton to take up surfing, or folks in Venice to mop up.

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