Climate as Proxy for Capital within the Minneapolis Skyway System

[Woman in skyway over Nicollet Mall. Photo by author.]
Stop what you’re doing, and go right now into the Minneapolis skyway system. Then ask a passerby, “Why does Minneapolis have skyways?” I would place good odds that they would say something about the weather.

Popular narratives of the skyway system today, and many books that use Minneapolis’s extensive network as an example, begin with the premise that they were built to shelter residents from the city’s notoriously long and cold winters (see Kaufman 1985, Allen 2005, McAullife 2006, Dahl 2008). Yet when the downtown skyway system was originally conceived, concerns about the cold weather climate were nowhere to be found (Byers 1998 151).

Rather, the skyway system originally emerged from a twofold desire. First, planners in the 1940s and 50s were very concerned about managing increasingly dense pedestrian flows, and viewed skyways as a way to maximize the use of urban space for both people and automobiles (Byers 1998 154). Second, business owners were interested in maximizing their property values, and saw the skyways an opportunity to double the amount of valuable retail space in their downtown buildings (Byers 1998 159).

However, in the rapidly changing urban retail and commercial environments during the 1960s and 70s, the rationale of the skyway system shifted. The skyway system became synonymous with convenience and sheltering office workers from the weather, a rationale that masked the economic and social motivations behind skyway construction. As one Minneapolis business owner put it, “if the public thinks they need protection from the weather let them. We’ll give them what they want as long as they keep spending money” (quoted in Byers 1998 160).

As it developed over time, the Minneapolis skyway system, the largest grade-separated system in the world, has adopted a shifting series of public and private rationales. In public, city leaders and urban planners offered varying justifications for skyway development, including redevelopment, convenience, protection from harsh climates, and pedestrian safety. In private, for investors and downtown retail interests, the skyway system has been about increasing property values and the value of private capital downtown. These conflicting narratives about the utility of the skyway system point to the problematic relationship between public space and private interests in cities.

In my experience, the present shape of the skyway system creates a two-tiered city landscape in downtown Minneapolis that divides the urban population along class lines, and serves the interest of private ownership at the expense of public space within the city. As others have pointed out, the architecture of the skyway system segregates and privatizes the pedestrian flows in the downtown core through mechanisms of disaggregated control. The design of access points, surveillance, policing, and the skyway’s interior architecture all serve to include and exclude certain downtown populations in the interest of increasing the value of property.

I believe that this processes undermines (or, more literally, overpasses) the social functions of public space. Today, the mix of private and public space within the skyway system mirrors David Harvey’s description of the ‘Haussmannization’ of Paris, where design became a filter that included and excluded urban populations, fostering certain kinds of street life for a privileged few at the expense of many others (Harvey 2003, 2005). 

The Accidental History of Minneapolis Skyways

[Map of skyway system in indoor skyway mall. Photo by author.]
The history of the Minneapolis skyway system as it developed over time is a complicated story, marked by conflicting rationales. The skyway system began as a privately funded investment tool, starting with one above-grade connection in 1962 that was part of a private mixed-use development (Byers 1998 156). Following its initial success, a few other building owners began to construct skyways throughout the city, in a scattered, uncoordinated and unconnected way.  Not until the construction of the large, mixed-use IDS building complex did the skyway system achieve a large amount of connectivity, and become the centerpiece of the downtown retail landscape.

While this initial stage of the skyway construction was developed by private investors, they worked in collaboration with city planners, particularly developing ideals and guidelines for future city development (Byers 1998 157). But the private and separate nature of the skyway system in the 1970s meant that each private skyway had irregular hours, prompting the city to regulate the spaces in 1980, and then assume control over the increasingly large system in 1986 (Corbett et. al. 2007). By the late 1980s, in both funding mechanisms and control, the skyways had developed into a hybrid public-private space (Sagalyn 1990).

[One of the 'retrofit' skyway spaces, often the least welcoming and hardest to nagivate. Photo by author.]

Today, the contemporary skyway system in downtown Minneapolis stands in a highly problematic relationship to public space. According to Byers (1998), skyway space is marked by the two key, interlinked problems that undermine the ability of the public to gather: privatization of space, and segregation of populations. These design consequences work together to control the space within the skyways in the interests of the building owners.

[Bathroom door locked to public in indoor skyway system. Photo by author.]
First, because the skyways are actually located within downtown buildings, most of the space in the Minneapolis skyway system is technically private space. Apart from publically owned buildings like the Hennepin County Government Center or the Convention Center, all the space within the skyways is privately owned and operated. In the interest of protecting their private property, owners use a number of techniques that control the types of behaviors that take place within the skyways. These tools of privatization include explicit mechanisms – e.g. surveillance cameras, private security guards, and limited hours of operation – and more subtle design features such as the lack of ‘public’ seating space within the system.

Yet, at least since the 1980s, public dollars have been invested within the skyway system, and there has been a measure of public control over the regulations and limits to access within the space. This paradoxical situation means that, despite its private ownership, building owners cannot limit access to the space, and the city has invested public money in the creation and maintenance of public space within the skyways. This conflict between private interest and public access places building owners in an unusual relationship with traditional public institutions. For example, because property owners seek to avoid negative attention, private security guards often handle security infractions internally (Byers 1998 288). Thus, the space within skyways represents an ambiguous mix between public investment and public space, and private ownership and private control.

Second, compared with the explicit privatization of space within the skyway system, the system’s segregation of downtown populations represents a more subtle way of controlling space. By increasingly creating inclusive connections with certain populations, and exclusive difficult-to-reach connections with other populations, the skyway space segregates downtown public space according to land use. For example, the skyway system offers easy connection to both public and private parking lots, including the large city-owned parking structures near the freeway entrance to the wealthy Western Minneapolis suburbs (Byers 1998 295).

At the same time, connections to the downtown streets and sidewalks and the large transit-dependent populations are difficult to find, and are often invisible from the street. The lack of transparency between the two kinds of space makes it difficult for less-informed populations to access the space. At the same time, shifting the population of downtown office workers off the streets and sidewalks makes it easier to justify auto-oriented design features along the street (e.g. curb-cut parking ramp entrances, blank ground floor building walls).

As a whole, the way that the skyway system creates a system of ‘convenience’ for certain populations of workers and shoppers in the downtown inherently excludes different or divergent uses of public space. The system segregates populations into two distinct groups, offering dramatically different mix of public and private services for each.

[A lack of pedestrian amenities on the sidewalk underneath the Minneapolis skyways. Photo by author.]

Haussmann’s Paris and the importance of “Relational Connectivity”

[Pissarro's Avenue de l'Opera, one of Paris's "Haussmannized" boulevards.]
As an urban historian, I want to suggest that the way in which the Minneapolis skyway system privatizes and segregates the streets and sidewalks of downtown Minneapolis offers strong parallels to David Harvey’s analysis of construction of boulevards in Paris in the mid-19th century (Harvey 2005). For Harvey, the primary function of public space is political, acting as a way of connecting social groups with each other into a “public sphere.” He writes:
The character of public space counts for little or nothing unless it connects symbiotically with the organization of institutional and private spaces. It is the relational connectivity among public, quasi-public, and private spaces that counts when it comes to politics in the private sphere.
(Harvey 2005 31)
Importantly, the organization of space along the Parisian boulevards lacked any of what Harvey calls "relational connectivity," which is the multiple processes by which the public’s disparate social groups integrate and intermix. Parisian boulevards, despite being “quasi-public” and accessible to all social groups, served as cultural and class “spectacles” that both included and excluded certain populations simultaneously. By creating spaces so uniformly designed to accommodate one particular class, Haussmann excluded the Parisian poor from feeling welcome along the boulevards, thereby undermining the connective public sphere function of the Parisian streets.

As anyone who observed the OccupyMN encampment from the safe perch of the skyway system can attest [see illustration at end of article], the analogy between Harvey’s boulevards and Minneapolis’s skyway system is striking, particularly surrounding the exclusionary practices employed in both urban landscapes. Like Paris, the skyway system is ostensibly open to the public, and offers an alternate climate-controlled ‘sidewalk’ through which any citizen can pass. Yet, also like the boulevards, the spatial characteristics of the skyway system serve to exclude many types of activity and, thus, many social groups and classes. For example, because each building’s interior is designed to maximize its own retail revenue, very few spaces are designed for leisure or relaxation. When walking through the skyway system, it is very difficult not to keep moving. The difficulty of strolling, sitting, standing, or stopping inherently excludes certain groups, particularly the poor and the elderly. Similarly, the ease of skyway access to certain populations (e.g. suburban commuters, office workers) lies in stark contrast to the hidden access points to the street (Byers 1998 317).

The similarities between Paris and Minneapolis stem not from parallel planning values, but rather from similar relationships between the private interest and the public good. As in Paris, the Minneapolis system places individual property owners at the center of planning design decisions. By instituting a system whereby each private building attempts to maximize its own revenue (viz. every other building), the end result of the skyway system’s overall design inevitably separates and privatizes spatial publics in the interests of making a profit. Despite the “democratic” processes operating in contemporary US cities, the Minneapolis system creates a speculative, consumerist environment that operates at least as effectively as Harvey’s Parisian boulevards.

Returning to the Street

Following the desire to maximize the value of downtown capital, the public rationale for the downtown skyway system has shifted from pedestrian safety to redevelopment to climate control. This shift points to how planning principles and the value of public space often seems to change over time, while the interests of capital and private property rights remain constant. Today the emphasis of much of downtown redevelopment efforts has shifted away from the development of a separate, autonomous downtown office core toward a more diverse and exciting cultivation of mixed-use environments

For example, in 2001, under new ownership, the long-running downtown newspaper changed its name officially from The Skyway News to The Downtown Journal (Minnesota Premier Publications 2009). Coming on the heels of the many downtown developments that had taken place outside of the skyway system (e.g. the North Loop and Guthrie condominiums, the Warehouse District’s clubs), the move marked a shift in tone for the ‘redevelopment’ efforts of downtown Minneapolis. No longer were the exclusive and private spaces of the skyway at the center of downtown life. Instead, the city’s narrative emphasis turned towards a broader future that included larger and more diverse social groups. The name change points to the limits of private and quasi-public space’s ability to serve as a public sphere.

The disaggregated historical causality of the Minneapolis skyway system illustrates the effect that the relationship between public good and private interest can have on urban public space. Despite a mix of public and private motives, various actors operating within the city’s social environment created a system that excludes and segregates social groups according to class, behavior, and appearance. At the same time, the actual public spaces of Minneapolis have suffered tremendously because of the segregation of space according to class. After a recent visit by a highly esteemed group of European urban planners and architects, Danish planning guru Jan Gehl said “I feel sorry for Minneapolis,” specifically recommending that the city tear down its skyways. The planning group argued 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.    
               (Berg 2007)
Indeed, as a visit to a the sidewalks outside the short-skirted Warehouse District clubs in January will reveal, skyways are not required for climatic reasons at all. In contrast, the climate serves as a public proxy for capital, standing in for the impulse to maximize private property at the expense of the relational connectivity of the public sphere.

[Protestors in the OccupyMN encampment, with a skyway in the background. Photo by author.]


Allen, R. C. (2005) "Beyond begging; Businesses: Claim sidewalks." Minneapolis. Star Tribune. Metro (Editorial). May 7, 2005

Berg, S. (2007) "Urban designers critique Minneapolis and offer this idea: Tear down all those horrible skyways." Minneapolis. MinnPost. Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007.

Byers, J. D. (1998) Breaking the ground plane: the evolution of grade-separated cities in North America. PhD Thesis. University of Minnesota Department of Geography. pp. 342.

Corbett, M.J.; Xie, F; Levinson, D. (2007) "Evolution of the second-story city: modeling the growth of the Minneapolis skyway network." Working paper: University of Minnesota Department of Civil Engineering. pp. 28.

Dahl, E. (2008) "Coat tales; We wandered the skyways of downtown Minneapolis in search of stylish, well-matched winter coats." Minneapolis. Star Tribune. Metro (Vita.MN). January 24, 2008

Harvey, D. (2005) The political economy of public space. In, Low, S. and Smith, N. (eds.) The Politics of Public Space. New York: Routeledge.

Harvey, D. (2003) Paris: capital of modernity. New York: Routledge.

McAuliffe, B. (2006). "DECEMBERRRRRRRR; Condo helps, but winter still brings chills; Today is 
the first day of `meteorological winter,' and for some, an urban lifestyle helps them deal with it on their own terms." Minneapolis. Star Tribune. Metro (4B). December 1, 2006

Minnesota Premier Publications (2009). "About us." March 10, 2009 http://www.downtownjournal.com/index.php?publication=mpp&section=42

Sagalyn, L. (1990) "Explaining the improbable: local redevelopment in the wake of federal cutbacks." Journal of the American Planning Association. 56 (4). 429 – 432.


KHH said...


Unknown said...

Fascinating article, thanks for posting! I've heard a lot in the way of architects in Minneapolis, MN having to find creative ways to get capital to fund their projects. Interesting stuff for sure.

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