Thursday, February 6, 2014

Of Skywalks and Self-Denial

Ah, skywalks. The classic example of reasonable, seemingly logical urban development thinking with ugly unforeseen consequences.  Spokane, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Minneapolis all fell prey to the skywalk craze of the 1960s and 1970s, and Spokane's is the second largest skywalk network in the country.

The idea behind skywalks was not without merit: "Hey, our city has cold winters. It also has businesses that want to attract customers, customers who could just as easily drive to a climate-controlled suburban mall instead. Humans don't like to be cold. Therefore, they will be more likely to shop in our city center if they don't have to walk outside. As a plus, skywalks look spacey and futuristic."

Unfortunately, all this weather-protected walking and shopping took people off the sidewalks, lured customers away from street-level businesses, and left cities looking lifeless and, well, kind of '70s.

Last week, I was downtown around lunchtime with my kids, on a cold but dry, not unpleasant January day. We were in the downtown core, where there are many office buildings and restaurants, and presumably many able-bodied office workers who enjoy eating food at midday. I was therefore shocked by the number of business people or other professionals I saw on the sidewalk - that is to say, not a soul. We were practically alone. The few people out could, I suppose, be called "loiterers," for lack of a more precise classification: people who are absolutely deserving of respect, dignity, and support, but whose presence you don't want exclusively characterizing your streetscape, if your goal is to attract tourists, shoppers, workers, and businesses.

We continued with our errands, and as we were preparing to leave the library to catch the bus home, I realized that though separated by several blocks, the library and the bus plaza are completely connected by skywalk. I usually avoid skywalks as a rule, but in my defense, it was cold, I hadn't really packed my full arsenal of warm layers as we were mostly traveling via bus, and besides, my 3-year-old pointed to the skywalk and said, "Let's go that way," so away we went.

Yes, unsurprisingly, it was warm. And yes, we did pass some indoor shops we wouldn't have otherwise seen. But I was surprised to find there all of the professionals missing from the sidewalks. And not just professionals, but other parents with kids, shoppers, possibly tourists - in short, everyone who was so conspicuously absent from the streetscape below.

Cities need a healthy mix of people on the sidewalks. People doing nothing more extravagant than walking and looking around promote a feeling of safety (and actual safety), a sense of community and interest, and boost the city's image. With a majority of people hidden upstairs in climate-controlled tubes, the city feels the way I found it: cold, dead, creepy, desolate. On the other hand, even in the coldest winters, people bundled up and hurrying from shop to shop or from work to restaurant on the sidewalks can make the same city feel inviting, vibrant, active, and safe.

Because most people are not willingly going to avoid the skywalks simply to do their part for the good of the city, the best thing to be done is to tear the suckers down. Cities like Cincinnati and Baltimore are doing precisely that. While I don't expect Spokane to do anything so bold anytime soon, my own skywalk days are over. As much as I hate cold (and I do, particularly in February), I plan to deal with the cold and do my part, outside, where I belong. The streetscape needs us.

1 comment:

  1. I can see the reason for a few skywalks (or their underground cousin, pedestrian tunnels) in places where the cold is terrifying or the wind can literally sweep you off of your feet. But in general, they both take away from the character of a city and make it even more car-centric because people think they are the solution to improving pedestrian safety. Because we can't possibly actually improve the road itself for pedestrians!