January 15, 2006

Fading Enthusiasm For Skywalks

They seem like a good idea: Covered or enclosed walkways connecting downtown buildings, allowing easy passage between offices and shops when the weather is bad (and even when it's not). But elevated walkways, not unlike elevated highways, can have unintended negative consequences on a neighborhood. "Instead of drawing additional people and retail to a second level, skywalks have left streets lifeless, presenting a cold and alienating environment," Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces, tells Associated Press.

And in fact, AP notes, "While skywalks remain popular in some cold-weather cities such as Des Moines, Iowa, an increasing number of cities have started tearing down some of their walkways or would like to remove them. Planners and others in cities such as Cincinnati, Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Hartford, Conn., and Kansas City, Mo., now believe increasing street-level pedestrian traffic will lead to more downtown homes, shops and entertainment."

What I like about the Boston's Copley Place Mall skywalk is that it is often used for pedestrians to more easily get between the mall and nearby neighborhood, helping to bring foot traffic to the nearby Back Bay neighborhood instead of avoid it. And fortunately, nearby Newbury Street and more recently Boylston Street are interesting enough in their own right that they can easily draw mall shoppers. But that's a relative rarity. As I recently posted in The Critical Importance of Street Life, planners need to pay close attention to things that generate foot traffic in a downtown business district as well as avoid things that are likely to kill it. Anyone looking to revitalize a business district needs to be crafting an attractive streetscape with pedestrian appeal.

"Cincinnati City Architect Michael Moore said the difference is striking around Fountain Square since two of the city's original 22 skywalk bridges were removed as part of a renovation to make the square a more welcoming, downtown center," according to AP, telling reporter Lisa Cornwell, "It looks so much larger and brighter."

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