Skywalks: Why are we afraid to walk outside?

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Principal | Chief Executive Officer

Almost every day, two of my colleagues and I head to Winnipeg Square to walk through the underground concourse instead of outside. Our goal is to touch the wall at the end of the hallway where Vantage Studio resides.

The origin of this trek precedes us, however, it illuminates a disconcerting element of downtown culture and our relationship with the outside. Even in the summer, we don’t adjust our walking trip to the city streets—we keep indoors, often ghosts to Downtown Winnipeg’s city fabric.

While Winnipeg is not the only city to rely heavily on indoor alternatives such as underground concourses and skywalks instead of sidewalks and city streets—it doesn’t mean that it should be that way.

History of skywalks in Winnipeg

Winnipeg’s relationship with skywalks began in the 1970s with the Weather Protect Walkway System that connected “38 buildings [and comprised] of 11 million square feet of space and 21,000 employees.” According to CBC, “the system now has 14 bridges and seven underground connections and more are in the works.”

I know that skywalks and concourses provide a reprieve from our cold and bitter winters. Still, it’s not productive to continue using these options when the weather is beautiful or even tolerable. In fact, as Taylor Lambert for the Calgary Herald pointed out, these ulterior passages are a “daily enemy in the battle to grow street life.”

Why we need skywalks

In Winnipeg, our reliance on skywalks and concourses has harmed the progressiveness of our city. It’s the reason the intersection of Main and Portage Avenue is still closed to pedestrians, it’s the reason why there is no overhang or shelter for people when it rains, it’s the reason why there are large blocks of city streets with no storefronts.

However, our reliance is not without the ease in which skywalks and underground concourses have made our lives. If I want to visit a friend on Lombard for lunch, why wouldn’t I use the underground concourse? It provides the path of most convenience to my ultimate destination. Otherwise, I’m walking a few extra blocks into The Exchange instead of crossing at Portage and Main, which would make the most sense (if it had opened).

The pitfalls of skywalks and indoor public spaces

As one of my colleagues noted, Winnipeg will add more skywalks to downtown soon. This means even fewer people on the streets and in our exterior public spaces. This also implies a more pervasive problem with adding more interior passageways— that is, we are handing off our public spaces to be privatized by businesses.

For example, Lambert writes, referring to Calgary’s plethora of Plus-15s:

“The Plus-15 bridges and the second-floor malls they connect to are not quite public spaces—the bridges themselves are owned by the city, but the rest of the network is a complex and patchwork arrangement of public easements on private property, usually policed by private security hired by the owners of buildings. City officials insist that the Plus-15 is meant to be, in spirit, a public space for everyone to use. But more than once have I seen a security guard wake someone who’d closed their eyes in a seating area and ask them to leave the building—not because they were disrupting or threatening anyone, or because there wasn’t an abundance of available seats, but because their clothes belonged on the street and not in the warm, comfortable world of middle-class Calgary.”

We all know that the skywalks and underground concourses aren’t open 24/7—most close around 10 p.m. or on the weekend. Yet, this is in diametric opposition to the purpose of these passages—ease, comfort, safety—when they aren’t open for public use.

Cities, mainly their urban centers, should always be made for people. We have found that the separation of vehicles and people has not provided a solution, but a gateway to other fiscal, social, cultural and environmental issues.

“Of course, the network has its defenders, too,” writes Lambert. “But at a minimum the Plus-15s are divisive, and still regularly framed by critics as pitting personal convenience in a city that loves convenience against vibrant streetscapes in a city sorely lacking them.”

Skywalks impact accessibility

In my article last year, "Why it’s time to open up Portage and Main", I mentioned the importance of having vibrant streetscapes, especially in an iconic intersection like Portage and Main:

“It’s a part of Winnipeg’s brand—an everyday advertisement for people living in the suburbs and for people visiting Winnipeg to see. According to CBC, 81,000 vehicles pass through Portage and Main each day. Whether it’s people commuting from the north end to the south end of the city or people visiting from all over the world—when they see our historic intersection, they see a soulless crossing in its place. Portage and Main is a critical commute and a landmark that is void of people. How can we show visitors and those from the suburbs what downtown can be if we hide people underground, which inadvertently perpetuates the negative stereotypes that downtown isn’t a safe or exciting place to be?”

People are integral to that brand—even in the wintertime. And many cities have started to recognize that encouraging people to use city streets translates into smart and progressive planning and urban design.

It’s also important to emphasize that skywalks and underground concourses are not always inclusive or accessible—even though they are supposed to make traveling easier for those with mobility issues in the wintertime.

For context, someone with mobility issues could not participate in the entirety of our "touch the wall" walk. Often, the lifts in Winnipeg Square are out of service, taking away the agency of those who are not able-bodied to move through the underground freely.

Their experiences are just as critical as someone who is able-bodied. However, we also shouldn’t have to rely on these interior spaces to get from point A to point B. We should invest more in making exterior spaces as accessible (or even more accessible) as their interior counterparts.

In conclusion

While eradicating all skywalks and underground concourses is not possible in Winnipeg—even I, in -50 F weather, prefer the comfort of shared airspace than the brisk cutting wind of our Siberian landscape. However, I also recognize the importance of vibrant streetscapes, inclusive and accessible design and people-first places in the development of our city.

Perhaps it’s time to find a new wall to touch that is outside—a personal protest to the enduring power of interior passages. Just as a few businesspeople started an informal walking group in the underground, perhaps I can start one that puts pedestrians back on the street.

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