*Downtown must embrace winter, not hide from it *
AFTER enduring a week of arctic wind chill in the month of March, it might be a bad time to discuss Winnipeg’s downtown walkway system, but as one of the five coldest major winter cities in the world, how we design for climate is an important consideration.
For many years, the North American response towinter has been to hide from it. In the 1960s, as downtowns started losing a battle to suburban shoppingmalls and office parks, civic leaders felt the only way to compete was to mimic this climate-controlled trend and consolidate interior spaces in the city centre.
Montreal was the leader in this movement, beginning construction of the Underground City in 1962, growing to become a staggering 32 kilometres of subterranean tunnels and shopping centres beneath the city. Since that time, 17 indoor pedestrian systems have been developed in cities across North America. Minneapolis boasts the longest continuous network of elevated walkways at 15 kilometres, and Calgary has the largest total length at 18 kilometres.
The idea for Winnipeg’s indoor walkway system began with the 1969Downtown Development Plan, which envisioned a futuristic city of towers and plazas, interconnected by a vast network of elevated and underground walkways to protect people from winter and allow vehicular traffic to flowmore efficiently. To discourage sidewalk use in the summer, the plan proposed “the secondstorey habit,” a strategy to pull all retail, commercial and social activities away from the ground level and into the corridors, so people could avoid cars and weather year-round.
Five years later, Winnipeg’s first skywalk would appear, connecting the buildings of Lakeview Square to the Convention Centre. Several years later, the underground concourse at Portage and Main would be an attempt to realize the cosmopolitan dreams of 1969.
Today, there is a movement beginning in many cities to reconsider the effects these indoor walkways are having on the vibrancy and prosperity of city centres. As it turns out, skywalks do precisely what was envisioned in Winnipeg’s 1969 plan: they remove people from the sidewalk. In low-density cities, this can have a significant effect.
Skywalks take an already limited number of pedestrians and dilute them over two levels, seasonally and at different times of the day. For a few hours, particularly in winter, office workers populate the indoor shops or restaurants, and sidewalk retail struggles. On evenings and weekends and in the summer, this is reversed. With the market divided, the critical mass generally isn’t created to sustain prosperous businesses in either realm. This can be seen very clearly at Portage and Main, where almost 10,000 people spend every day, yet few ground-floor amenities exist and underground restaurants generally stay open for just a few hours around lunchtime, five days a week.
Some planners also argue the skywalks create a social hierarchy between the raised, quasi-public space and the sidewalk. This combines with the lower pedestrian numbers and struggling retail storefronts to exacerbate the feeling that downtown streets are unsafe and uncomfortable, compounding the issue.
It is generally understood that indoor walkways aren’t going anywhere — only Cincinnati has dismantled its network — so many cities are beginning to look at ways to reduce their impact.
In Minneapolis, consideration is being given to removing retail in sections of their walkway, making them simply circulation thoroughfares that don’t compete for business. To complement this strategy, they are hoping to build more highly visible connections directly to the sidewalk. An excellent precedent for this is Winnipeg’s newest skywalk addition at the Delta Hotel on St. Mary Avenue, which incorporates a beautiful, transparent glass stair and elevator to the sidewalk, making pedestrian flow between levels more seamless and inviting.
A key strategy to reducing the impact of walkways is to focus on improving the sidewalk experience, making it more comfortable for pedestrians in all seasons.
Building elements such as awnings and overhangs can provide shelter from snow and rain. Small storefronts with several entrances allow pedestrians the opportunity to flow in and out of the cold. Design guidelines can be created to ensure new buildings reduce shadows and windtunnel effects on the sidewalk. Public spaces and restaurant patios can incorporate windscreens, gas fire pits and other heating sources.
In Montreal, construction will soon begin on an in-ground heated sidewalk system along Sainte-Catherine Street that will be expanded to 2.2 kilometres in length in 2020. This idea, used for years in Oslo and Reykjavik, is also being considered in Saskatoon to melt snow and improve the pedestrian experience.
Great cities, even cold cities, are defined by the vitality of their street life. To be an extraordinary winter city, Winnipeg must design to embrace the climate and not to hide from it. Winnipeg is one of Canada’s sunniest cities— and its temperature is typically above freezing 250 days per year — yet our priorities seem focused only on those harsh winter days.
At two kilometres, the length of Winnipeg’s skywalk system is a fraction of that in other cities, but its effects can still be seen. Not only has it fundamentally altered the iconic view down Portage Avenue, it is partially responsible for its many empty storefronts.
Winnipeg can learn from the experience of faster-growing cities and design its skywalk system carefully and sensitively, to reduce its impact. By building more visible, direct connections between levels, improving outdoor pedestrian comfort and focusing on support for ground floor retail to give people a reason to go outside and enjoy the city, we can bring people back to walk the sidewalks, like they did for a hundredwinters before the skywalks were built.
* Brent Bellamy is chairman of Centre Ventu re ’s board and the creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group.*