Minneapolis: A Model for Canadian Prairie Cities

Commentary, Municipal Government, Steve Lafleur

Winter is challenging for Prairie residents, particularly those with limited mobility. Residents can attest to the fact that life is vastly different at -35c than at -10c. Minneapolis, MN provides lessons for how Prairie cities in Canada can promote mobility in the depths of winter. Its extensive indoor elevated pedestrian walkway system is one example. It has helped to make it one of the most appealing cities in North America, despite being colder than Toronto.

Elevated pedestrian walkways provide warm places for people to get exercise during winter months, and to avoid freezing while crossing downtown cores or waiting for public transit. This is especially important for people with limited mobility, for whom trudging through icy sidewalks can be hazardous.

Minneapolis has the most extensive elevated walkway system in the world.  Residents use it not just to avoid the cold, but to get exercise during winter months.

While many urbanists worry about the impact on street life, the reality is that street life is unpleasant and barely existent when exposed skin can freeze in as little as two minutes. People scurry from car or bus to store as quickly as possible.

Not surprisingly, even crime cools down during the winter in Prairie cities. Downtown Minneapolis is fairly empty at street level during the winter, but there are many people in the walkway system. While some have pointed to fluctuating pedestrian levels in the system, and closures of a few chain restaurant locations in the system as signs of failure, it remains heavily used. And despite providing a valuable public service, it doesn’t require subsidies.

The street life argument becomes more salient during other seasons even though people use the walkway year round. However, Minneapolis attracts pedestrians to the streets. The Nicollette Mall area, where a section of Nicollette Avenue is reserved for busses (much like Winnipeg’s Graham Avenue), provides the best example. Unlike Graham, which attracts little retail business after office hours, Nicolette Mall is packed with bars and restaurants. Moreover, a large number of street vendors occupy the wide sidewalks for most of the year. The avenue isn’t just for catching a bus. It is a destination.

Attracting people to the street level is a better approach than forcing them into the cold. This should be pretty obvious for anyone who has ever waited for a bus at -30c.

The other of the Twin Cities, St.Paul, MN, has its own elevated walkway system. It is less than half the size, reflecting the smaller downtown. Rochester and Dulluth, MN, also have elevated walkway systems, as do more than a dozen other American cities.

Prairie residents are familiar with elevated pedestrian walkways. Regina and Saskatoon have some overhead pedestrian crossings, while Edmonton, Calgary, and Winnipeg have more extensive systems.

Calgary’s +15 system is nearly as expansive as the Minneapolis Skyway, and is paid for by private developers. Calgary requires developers in the central business district to build links into the system, much like they require provision developers to provide sidewalks for housing developments.

Winnipeg’s Skywalk system is fairly extensive, though somewhat circuitous. Many low-rise buildings impeded connections from building to building, thus requiring many pedestrians to walk well out of their way to stay indoors. Several new and proposed Downtown high-rise buildings can be connected to extend the system. In fact, connectivity to the Skywalk system is a selling point for the Glass House condo building under construction across from the MTS Centre.

Edmonton’s Pedway system, while also circuitous, can get one across most of downtown, connecting to several major office buildings, as well as City Hall. Like Winnipeg, the system relies on a combination of above and below ground walkways.

Regina recently decided to halt expansion of its elevated walkway system because they felt it is too detrimental to street life. However, transit advocates have recently pointed out that many riders are forced to crowd inside of businesses to stay warm while waiting for the bus. If Western Canadian cities want to encourage public transportation, indoor pedestrian walkways (combined with heated bus shelters) could help. After all, most people won’t choose to freeze outside waiting for transit, if they can avoid it.

Urban planners often treat all cities as though they’re New York. No matter how much we might want to be able to leisurely wander the streets in January, we simply don’t have that option in Prairie cities. We should plan accordingly.