Keeping pedestrians indoors no longer seems like a smart way to bring downtowns back to life.
Skywalks, the elevated indoor walkways that span downtown streets to connect buildings and soften the effects of blustery weather, are going the way of 8-track tapes. A staple of 1960s and '70s architecture in many cities, they were seen as innovative design features that could help bring vitality to the urban center, a climate-controlled way to keep downtown workers sealed off from weather, traffic and crime. But skywalks are increasingly being viewed as dated eyesores that wipe out pedestrian traffic on city streets.
The era of skywalk construction essentially ended years ago, but now some cities are starting to tear the things down. Baltimore and Hartford have each removed two skywalks in recent years. Last fall, Cincinnati demolished the third of its original 22 walkways.
Planners in other cities, including Kansas City and Charlotte, are recommending the same treatment. Kansas City council members last year discussed a proposal to ban any future "aerial walkways over public streets and sidewalks" downtown. Nationwide, about two dozen cities still feature skywalks, but the number is almost certain to shrink over the next few years as more communities join the growing consensus that what their downtowns need is open air and greater street-level foot traffic, not glass-enclosed indoor shortcuts.
Pedestrian bridges won't disappear altogether. Skywalks still serve a purpose in wintertime in cold cities such as Minneapolis, Des Moines and Fargo. In Minneapolis, where the skywalk fad largely began four decades ago, the system of walkways stretches over 5 miles and connects more than 50 blocks of stores, office buildings, theaters and convention space. Des Moines has a 3-mile system. Even in the cold cities, however, skywalks aren't wildly popular anymore. Des Moines isn't tearing any of them down, but its council has passed resolutions limiting skywalks to a concentrated district downtown.