For the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, Walt Disney and the Ford Motor Company joined forces to build Ford’s Magic Skyway. This innovative theme park ride invited visitors—some 2,000 per hour—to sit in real Ford convertibles and take a journey through time itself. Fitted to an automatic tram system (developed especially for the Skyway), each car’s journey began in the Jurassic period and progressed all the way up to glimpses of humankind’s possible future, all bright, glossy, and streamlined. The Magic Skyway was one of four Disney-sponsored attractions at the fair, a list that included General Electric’s famed “Progressland,” but the Skyway was among the event’s most lauded and frequented by fairgoers, sparking the fuse that would lead to the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, otherwise known as EPCOT.
When one considers Disney’s EPCOT Center and the utopian vision on which it was founded, there lingers to this day a sense of gaudy and oft-cartoonish retrofuturism, like an Athelstan Spilhaus “Our New Age” comic strip come to animatronic life. That’s not necessarily by accident. Disney and his team surely realized that time and innovation would keep closing the gap between our modern-day reality and their untethered visions of Le Corbusier–meets–George Jetson “machines for living.” Eventually, one curated incarnation after the next would appear quaint and kitsch. From its immodest beginnings, the idea was to build for the public something immersive and ever-changing, always a few steps beyond our furthest horizon. If that’s not the embodiment of cockeyed optimism, I’m not sure what is. It’s then perhaps a tad ironic that EPCOT’s precursor, the Magic Skyway, was immediately disassembled and cast aside at the conclusion of the fair.
Somewhere amidst the landfill-bound rubble of Ford’s Magic Skyway and the enduring attraction of Disney’s EPCOT, there’s a lesson to be gleaned. In Cold War-era America, a new penchant for “interior urbanism” was on the rise. More than a few new hotels and office buildings designed in the 1960s and ’70s were built with expansive lobbies and soaring atriums, which allowed for these spaces to be activated urban complexes in their own right, cloistered and inward-looking, temperature controlled and HVAC-dependent, begetting spaces within spaces within spaces. Sounds like not too bad a place to ride out nuclear winter. But even then, one still needs to get around and stay mobile. The logical next step, it would seem, is to seal off whole city blocks while maintaining the integrity (and accessibility) of the street grid, more or less. And since I think we all can agree that Buckminster Fuller’s infamous glass dome idea was never going to work, what we’re now left to contend with in actuality is our old friend, the skyway.
There are more than a few examples of note: Calgary’s +15 is a labyrinthine configuration of loosely connected walkways that seems far too vast relative to its daily usage, which peaks at roughly 20,000 pedestrians. There’s a five-block stretch of skyway in the Uptown section of Charlotte, North Carolina, a town not exactly known for inclement weather, and there is, of course, the Cincinnati Skywalk, a once-unremarkable 1.3-mile-long network that today is mercifully referred to in the past tense. The most well-known example, however, is the one in my adopted city of Minneapolis.
The City of Minneapolis and its downtown business district lay claim to the largest contiguous skyway system in the world, comprising 9 miles of interconnected elevated walkway and nearly 80 bridges, which span about as many city blocks. In pre-Covid figures, peak pedestrian traffic within the skyway’s core averaged more than 200,000 on any workday. Like many ad hoc urban interventions that occurred in the ’60s and ’70s, the skyway was conceived as a measure to breathe new life into forlorn business centers. (Think Montreal’s vast RÉSO Underground City or the revitalization of Boston’s Faneuil Hall into a first-of-its-kind “festival marketplace.”) But a well-orchestrated and strategic urban development scheme this was not.
In 1958, General Mills packed up and moved its headquarters from downtown Minneapolis to a newly developed corporate campus in the suburb of Golden Valley. This move, along with other destination shopping developments beginning to pop up in the suburbs, prompted local developer Leslie Park to build a single stretch of skyway spanning the highly trafficked Marquette Avenue, to complement his company’s new mixed-use Northstar Center. This relatively small intervention, unveiled in 1962, and the manner in which it was built, became the template for what would become, piece by piece, one of the messiest and most ill-conceived pedestrian networks ever realized. The Minneapolis skyway system is, in fact, a complex (or should I say complicated) series of privately developed and maintained footbridges that feed into dozens of building lobby mezzanines and a handful of vaulted retail crossroads. The most notable example is the Philip Johnson–designed “Crystal Court” at the IDS Center, the first such interior intersection to boast skyway access points on all four sides. While there are times and places when walking through the skyway can feel like a welcome respite from the elements, particularly in the dregs of winter, its maze-like corridors seldom mirror the street grid below. There is an almost criminal dearth of wayfinding mechanisms in place, and because it was built out in piecemeal by private developers, it’s a jurisdictional nightmare. It’s basically the urban design equivalent of a rat king.
The city’s continued commitment to this mode of mobility was best illustrated upon the opening of U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016, a $1.06 billion Star Destroyer parked in the Downtown East neighborhood, which was fitted with an additional mile of brand new enclosed skyway connecting to the downtown core. This kind of joint development doesn’t happen if you’ve heeded the warnings about the perils of skyways—and indeed, the warnings are myriad.
Back in 2007, during a visit to the Twin Cities for ULI Minnesota’s “Vital Winter Cities” conference, the renowned Danish architect Jan Gahl observed that the skyway struck a “defensive posture” toward nature. Urbanist and 8 80 Cities founder Gil Penalosa remarked that they “suck the public life out of the city.” City leaders clearly appreciated the weight of these comments, not to mention their sources, because Gahl’s words were later cited in the Minneapolis Downtown Council’s 2025 Plan, in the (too-brief) section entitled “The Skyway Paradox.”
“Skyways are a blessing and a curse,” the Plan proclaimed, but offered little in the way of attainable solutions beyond a few options “to consider,” including better signage, limited expansion and/or exterior elevators (?!), all in the name of “creating a livelier, greener and safer street life.” But here’s the rub: such a goal can never be realized—no matter how many people move into new condos in the downtown core or however many bike racks and pedestrian-privileged streets are introduced—so long as the skyway is there to lure businesses to remain one story up and thus incentivize the perpetuation of interior-facing storefronts in one windowless arcade after the next.
What many city leaders and officials have treated over the years as a minor nuisance in the way of achieving some version of a 15-minute city, replete with all the placemaking principles, is in fact the nucleus of this unique urban design problem. Past efforts by the city to revitalize Nicollet Mall, the pedestrian-oriented spine of Downtown Minneapolis, around which the bulk of skyway activity is centered, have included various proposals—practical or otherwise—for more accessible and visible connectivity with the skyway at the street level, which at the end of the day is not nothing, but if there’s a cancer attacking your nervous system, buying a box of Band-Aids isn’t going to accomplish much. Downtown Council President Steve Cramer was quoted quite recently as saying, when asked about the state of the skyway post-Covid, “I think the default position is that skyways are so critical to how downtown operates that we’ve got to find a way to make them work. …Our take on it always has been, it’s there, it’s not going away.”
Not exactly words to inspire optimism.
The Downtown Council’s dual assessment that the skyway is both blessing and curse is true, but if time has proved anything, it’s that the latter far outweighs the former, and the pandemic has only furthered that disproportion. In a thoughtful and carefully researched article for Twin Cities Business, Executive Editor Adam Platt is careful not to place all of the blame for downtown’s decades-long woes on the skyway, but he doesn’t shy from homing in on what may be the real skyway paradox: that feeling of general emptiness and inactivity one gets when traipsing through parts of downtown. “Believe it or not, the core is mostly fully leased,” Platt quotes Mary Bujold, who heads a firm that tracks the housing market. “The lack of street vitality is due to the skyways and winter.” And now, of course, thanks the pandemic, the skyways have been stripped of their vitality, if that word ever applied. What’s more, it’s worth considering the very real possibility that shopping, eating, or even taking a casual stroll within the confines of what amounts to an unnavigable 9-mile-long strip mall may have lost its appeal forever.
The ride is over. Time to tear it down.
Over the years many journalists, urbanists, and business leaders have advocated for this very thing: to rid the city of this supposed blight, one bridge at a time, and return life to the street level. “We’re a 2017 city living with 1967 urban-design thinking,” wrote Eric Dayton in a controversial 2017 op-ed for the Star Tribune. Four years on, those words ring truer now more than ever. The interior urbanism of the ’60s and ’70s, in all its postmodern glory, was a design practice that appeared to live in fear of the cities in which it resided. Insulated from the outside world and relegating all requisite hustle and bustle to a series of lobbies and hallways, such spaces were conceived to be cities’ salvation, but time has caught up. The urban experiment that is the Minneapolis skyway was by all accounts bold, even enlightened, and managed to alter the DNA of a major American city. And yet when the variants inevitably change in an experiment, so too must the experimental technique applied. Like them or not, skyways are relics of a time when pessimism reigned and urban design was a zero-sum game. If ever there was a time for leaders in a select few cities to pivot and reimagine—with commensurate boldness and vision—the potential at ground level, that time is now.
All photos by the author, unless otherwise noted.