Take The Skyway

by Misha Lepetic

There wasn't a damn thing I could do or say
Up in the skyway
~The Replacements

Mumbai_skywalkWalking has been much in the news lately, or rather, how little Americans seem to be doing it. It’s obvious that walking is good for individual health, but what should perhaps be even more emphasized is the importance of walking for the overall health of the urban fabric. So, in addition to asking ourselves the question of how we can get people to walk more, we also ought to consider equally beneficial ways for designing the built environment, such that all this walking will bring about a result for society. Walking may be an end in itself, but if it is only considered as such, we forego the opportunity that it is a means as well.

The history of walking in American cities is one of the steady erosion of an activity that was so natural that its importance was almost entirely tacit. It is always amazing to realize how malleable our norms are: during the automobile’s first few decades, pedestrian fatalities were commonly greeted with criminal charges such as ‘technical manslaughter’. Drivers were viewed with mistrust, considered reckless and even represented class division. However, pedestrians became increasingly regarded as impediments to the velocity of modern life, and economic progress became increasingly associated with the automobile and the infrastructure that made its hegemony possible.

How did this change come about? As Sarah Goodyear writes in the Atlantic Cities blog,

One key turning point…came in 1923 in Cincinnati. Citizens’ anger over pedestrian deaths gave rise to a referendum drive. It gathered some 7,000 signatures in support of a rule that would have required all vehicles in the city to be fitted with speed governors limiting them to 25 miles per hour.

Local auto clubs and dealers recognized that cars would be a lot harder to sell if there was a cap on their speed. So they went into overdrive in their campaign against the initiative. They sent letters to every individual with a car in the city, saying that the rule would condemn the U.S. to the fate of China, which they painted as the world’s most backward nation. They even hired pretty women to invite men to head to the polls and vote against the rule. And the measure failed…The industry lobbied [for] the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of “jaywalking” – a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 – was enshrined in law.

This was the beginning of a long and effective campaign that saw walking legislated and planned almost out of existence. Even now, designers and planners are often hobbled by a perspective which continues to favour the automobile over pedestrian – most ironically, in the name of safety.

Diverging_diamondRegardless of the various prescriptions, guidelines and legislation meant to make streets more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly, the tacit assumption that emphasizes automobile flow has proven stubborn: non-drivers are clearly second-class citizens. For example, Charles Marohn, executive director of Strong Towns, provides a very funny but devastating meta-commentary of a tour of a new traffic interchange. A “diverging diamond” may seem like the name of a new and exotic financial derivative, but it is in fact a design innovation meant to improve traffic flow. While it accomplishes this quite handily, pedestrians, cyclists and even the blind are accommodated in a way that can only be characterized as grudging, to put it mildly.

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However, it’s not just the monopolization of the street by the car that merits careful thinking about walking. There have been many other innovations of the built environment that have – perhaps unintentionally but nevertheless successfully – torn apart the urban fabric and therefore contributed to the decline of the culture of walking. Historically, we can locate this disruption of the city fabric as one of the consequences of architectural modernism. As Stephen Marshall writes in Streets and Patterns,

Modernism not only broke [the] relationship between movement and urban place: it reversed it. It proposed an inverse relationship between movement and urban place. The movement would now be the movement of fast motor traffic; the urban places would become tranquil precincts.

Nowhere is this made more explicit than in the Athens Charter, a manifesto of – perhaps not unintentionally – 95 theses, conceived in 1933 and published by Le Corbusier in 1943: “Traffic flow and its design is the primary determinant of city form.” By conceptualizing traditional street patterns as dysfunctional and best swept away, the scene was set for planners to divorce the transportation network from the rest of the city. Furthermore, please consider another, intriguing passage in the Athens Charter:

Thesis 22: The suburbs are often mere aggregations of shacks hardly worth the trouble of maintaining.

Flimsily constructed little houses, boarded hovels, sheds thrown together out of the most incongruous materials, the domain of poor creatures tossed about in an undisciplined way of life — that is the suburb! Its bleak ugliness is a reproach to the city it surrounds. Its poverty, which necessitates the squandering of public funds without the compensation of adequate tax resources, is a crushing burden for the community. It is the squalid antechamber of the city; clinging to the major approach roads with its side streets and alleys, it endangers the traffic on them; seen from the air, it reveals the disorder and incoherence of its distribution to the least experienced eye; for the railroad traveler, excited by the thought of the city, it is a painful disillusion!

This passage allows us the insight that, speaking from the Jurassic of the pre-Levittown era, Le Corbusier could not imagine that the suburbs would take such rich advantage of the liberation of urban transit networks to decisively supplant the economic hegemony of the cities and thus starve them of their vitality. Depopulation of cities was not the only consequence of the flight to the suburbs. Equally devastating was the rise of suburban shopping malls, which, by successfully servicing nearby populations, obviated the traditional, commercial functions of “downtown”. Already by the 1950s, downtown districts saw their businesses failing. When added to the depopulated urban core, crime soared and city officials became desperate to find ways to bring people back to the heart of the metropolis.

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Given the dismissal of the traditional urban street pattern as touched on above, designers were keen to pounce on brave new forms that would meet the demands of commerce and safety. One of these urban formations turned out to be the skywalk, the general term for any passageway that was meant for pedestrians but in fact was completely divorced from the street. The skywalk was seen as clean, easy to manage, and not in the least unpredictable or dangerous. It was, in a word, thoroughly modern.

OverpassToday, skywalks are most commonly thought of in terms of northern US cities, as an effective method by which pedestrians (that is, office workers) are protected from the elements. But seen through the historical lens, it is clear that the conception and implementation of skywalks was entirely keeping with modernist traditions. Thus it should be unsurprising to learn that skywalks are now generally considered to be failures of urban design, despite the fact that they manage to keep the lunch crowd warm on the chilliest February day.

Even by 1988, commentators such as Kurt Andersen were blasting the skywalk phenomenon:

In some fundamental ways skywalks are more perniciously anti-urban than the shopping malls they are intended to compete against. Good malls, like city streets, encourage lingering, serendipity; skywalks, however, are pedestrian freeways, streets distilled to the strictly utilitarian function of providing transit from Point X to Point Y, no detours allowed. In skywalks, there is none of the traditional city's invigorating mix of commerce and leisure, businesspeople and loiterers…Sam Bass Warner Jr., a Boston University urban historian, sees skywalks as a symbol of urban abandonment, not reinvigoration. They are, he says, “a sign that we've given up on the street. They treat the street as essentially an automobile place. That is going to make for a very poor downtown.”

Andersen does note with some satisfaction that Hartford, CT was able to revitalize its downtown while rejecting the skywalk approach, and that “a 1982 Seattle ordinance prohibits any skybridge that blocks a vista or reduces street traffic – in effect, all skywalks.” In addition to their deracinating effects on the urban landscape, skywalks carry the additional risks of catastrophic engineering failures: in 1981, the collapse of a skywalk in the Kansas City Hyatt Hotel was, until 9/11, the country’s deadliest structural failure, with 114 lives lost (although some might claim that, at least in China, sidewalks carry their own risks).

It seems that today these lessons are being taken to heart, but, as with anything involving the built environment, what was done can be undone, if slowly and painfully. If we fast forward to recent times, a 2005 article in the New York Times documents the dissatisfaction of various mayors and city councils with these extensive infrastructures. While I hasten to add that correlation does not equal causation, the article notes that “Des Moines began building its three miles of skywalks in 1982, arguing at the time that the $10 million program would save the city. Twenty-three years later, city officials blame the skywalks for the ghostly still sidewalks and ground-floor vacancy rates of 60 percent.”

Making_of_MetropolisIn some cases, a city is powerless to remove these structures, since “many were built with a mix of public and private money and are now owned, maintained and guarded by the office towers through which they run.” (This points to a further wrinkle: the hours skywalks are open, as well as access to the buildings that provide entry and exit to the skywalks themselves, are not determined by public officials.) In the case of Minneapolis, the issue of private ownership is impeding Mayor R.T. Rybak’s progressive vision of a return to integrated city streets. Since skywalks allow building owners to charge 5%-10% more rent, their refusal to go along with any dismantling may lead the city to compromise, for example, by connecting skywalks to the street via elevators.

Nevertheless, the expensive prospect of re-weaving the urban fabric is underway in certain places. In 2002 Cincinnati created a master plan to begin dismantling its skywalks, and that program is proceeding apace, albeit on a case-by-case basis. Cincinnati officials were prescient enough to conjoin this action with a thorough renovation of Fountain Square, which is now one of the city’s pre-eminent urban spaces. St. Louis demolished a 4-story skywalk that had held one of its great vistas hostage – and threw a party as the mayor took a first crack with the wrecking ball. Even perennially cash-strapped Baltimore has recently plumped for a $2m skywalk demolition. In every case, city officials maintained that the skywalks had become obstacles to the reinvigoration of their downtowns.

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This checkered history commends itself to other cities looking to implement skywalks. While designers, planners and officials in the US have – one hopes – learned their lessons from the mid-century failures of modernism, the application of urban forms spawned by modernist approaches nevertheless continues apace in other parts of the world. This then gives us the opportunity to ask what, if anything, might be different this time around? In the case of skywalks in particular, designers must recognize that they are creating a total environment, one that is very much the antithesis of city streets that promote serendipity and dynamism. Assuming recognition of this knowledge, we hope that the advantages, in terms of connectivity, etc, created by the skywalk is a benefit that – somehow – manages to offset the cost of removing people from the street. Indeed, the same critical lens should be applied to any innovation of urban form.

In the second half of this article, to be published next month, I will look at skywalk projects in places such as Mumbai, Dubai and São Paulo, and examine whether they measure up to these standards. In the meantime, if anyone is familiar with other such projects, I would be glad to know about them and include them in the follow-up.

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