Take The Skyway, Part 2

by Misha Lepetic

There wasn't a damn thing I could do or say
Up in the skyway
The Replacements

Dal_downtownAn empty downtown, with boarded-up shops and desolate sidewalks, is truly a sad sight to behold. It is also symptomatic of much larger forces, namely the flight from the urban core into the suburbs that wound up decimating the vitality of American cities during the second half of the 20th century. Last month I argued that the urban form of the skywalk was a partial and misguided response to reviving the emptied-out downtowns of American cities. In most instances these structures, which sought to connect buildings without touching the street, were a prolonged, painful failure, because they further segregated street life and did not succeed in drawing people back into that urban core, at least in a way that could be considered dynamic and responsive to the larger needs of the urban fabric. In a sense, much was expected of skywalks, but in fact they were little more than a Band-Aid, and served to only exacerbate the problem through the fundamentally anti-social tendencies that underlie their design and use.

And yet, like any other urban form, skywalks are agnostic – what determines their success is not just their design and implementation, but also the problem that they seek to address. It is perhaps more accurate to say that skywalks, along with many other forms of intervention in the urban built environment, reveal the question that designers have posed themselves, believing that that question, whatever it might be, is in fact the correct and most pressing one. So, in the case of American cities, skywalks were employed to revive downtowns, and, generally speaking, failed. Other cities around the world have enlisted skywalks not because there is too little density, but because there is too much. Does this new context increase the possibility of success? In order to understand what a difference a difference makes, we first need to consider the forces that shaped cities in the West, and what the difference might be between this phenomenon and that of the global urban South.

The narrative describing the development of American cities can be retold as a narrative of excessive space. When energy and labour are cheap, economic logic drives growth outward; it is always easier to build on virgin ground rather than re-organize an existing built environment. This is especially true when urban areas are not bounded by geographic obstacles such as water or mountains – a condition true of most mid-Western cities and not a few coastal ones.

For much of history, the urban periphery was the provenance of the poor who could not afford to live within the cities, but the industrial revolution saw the rise of urban manufacturing and the densification of cities with a relatively new class: the urban working poor. It was with industrialization that the urban-rural divide was first thrown into sharp relief, and it did not take long for the cities to become overcrowded, unhealthy, and downright dangerous places. Consider Friedrich Engels’ description of Manchester, arguably the first truly industrialized city in the world:

Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am forced to admit that instead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterise the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants. And such a district exists in the heart of the second city of England, the first manufacturing city of the world. If any one wishes to see in how little space a human being can move, how little air – and such air! – he can breathe, how little of civilisation he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither. True, this is the Old Town, and the people of Manchester emphasise the fact whenever any one mentions to them the frightful condition of this Hell upon Earth; but what does that prove? Everything which here arouses horror and indignation is of recent origin, belongs to the industrial epoch. (The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844, p53).

MancottonBut the consequences of industrialization also led to a tremendous outpouring of economic activity that included an unprecedented efflorescence of infrastructure, especially that of transportation. First railroads and then automobiles massively broadened the places where people could live and work in relation to the city. It is thus one of the ironies of industrialization that such activity simultaneously created both the reason and the means for the flight from urban centers.

This reversal of spatial logic was finalized once the automobile and its accompanying infrastructure assumed its hegemonic status. The suburbs were actively marketed to those consumers who could afford to leave the urban core as safe places adequately distant from the city and its reputation of stink and grind that has plagued it since Engels’s time. Those consumers, perhaps most iconically represented in America’s post-World War II generation, were easy fodder for developers and politicians, for whom easy profits and an ever-expanding tax base came to be seen as the sine qua non of national growth and prosperity. Given the geographic convenience of a seemingly limitless urban periphery, there was every reason to give up on cities and the shambles into which they had been transformed. When taken to its extremes, we end up with irrational outcomes such as exurbia on the one hand, and Detroit on the other. Corresponding responses to this gutting of the urban center also led to an increasing awareness of the need to fix it, or at least acknowledge it, and one might classify skywalks as one such half-hearted attempt to patch things up.


Shifting to the developing world, however, and a different narrative comes into view. The steady immigration into the cities has, for some commentators, recreated Engels’s nightmare of density. However, there are crucial distinctions. Labour is still cheap, and although energy and capital are somewhat more dear, a distinguishing difference is that the scale of growth is far beyond what was experienced in Europe’s and America’s period of industrialization. Unlike American cities in the late 19th century (but perhaps not unlike Manchester’s initial growth spurt), the urban global South is growing so rapidly that these city administrations cannot build infrastructure quickly enough to provide urbanites with widely distributed water, sewage and electrical services; telecommunications are perhaps the most functional, but this is mostly because of investment made by the private sector. In terms of the development of transportation, these cities are still at the start of the S-curve that commonly describes the growth of automobile ownership, and as such continue to rely heavily on mass transit, which can take diverse forms, some of which are generally beneficial (such as bus rapid transit) or generally harmful (such as hordes of unregulated auto-rickshaws, etc).

As a result, there is still relatively little flight to the suburbs. Of course, this may change over the next decades as not only car ownership but the building of roads and highways creates more escape routes from the city (although one could argue rather persuasively that cheap gas is a thing of the past and this will stymie urban flight somewhat). Thus the problem encountered by planners in these cities is one of too much density, most dynamically represented by the conflicting modalities of pedestrians and drivers, and further exacerbated by the fact that sidewalks, where they exist at all, are likely poorly designed and clogged with street vendors, illegally parked vehicles and unauthorized spatial appropriations by bordering buildings. So it is perhaps (un)surprising that, in order to deal with this astonishing chaos, planners in some cities have come to a similar conclusion, and plumped for the creation of skywalks.

Skywalk1Mumbai is perhaps the most vocal proponent of Skywalk 2.0. Like Manchester, Mumbai got its head start on industrialization via the cotton trade – Manchester was in fact its principal trading partner. (It is an indication of the ongoing densification of the city that its 58 textile mills, once long abandoned, have seen their locations, now in the center of Mumbai, become extraordinarily valuable; indeed, the former Shrinivas Mill is now slated to be the site of the world’s tallest residential tower.) Mumbai’s metropolitan railway serves over 7 million daily riders; by way of comparison, New York’s subway serves about 5 million. With city streets increasingly straitened, planners saw the need to get commuters to and from the train stations and other “targeted” points of interest quickly and efficiently, especially since pedestrian deaths have been on the rise. The skywalks project was ambitiously slated for 50 skywalks and saw its first completed construction in 2008; since then another 35 have been built. By August 2010, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority was proud to report that nearly 600,000 people were using the skywalks. Although this is still less than 10% of the ridership of the rail system, one ought to concede a certain amount of time for the system to mature.

Nevertheless, troubling signs have been emerging. Similar to the attitudes of American planners, there is an implicit mistrust of the street, which is unpredictable, incomplete and messy. It may be that planners want to decrease the number of pedestrians struck by cars; this is a noble undertaking. But as was the case in American cities, skywalks are in fact a design choice that deliberately dismembers the urban street: people who want to do Activity X are meant to use this infrastructure, whereas everyone else is left to go about their business as before. Principally, what this does not do is solve any of the other issues the street might already have. For example, it does not address the issue of street vendors, but it merely prohibits them from reaching possible customers who now walk above their heads. This does not mean that street vendors will pack up and go home. They may, however, become more aggressive in order to ensure their prior level of income. Furthermore, it is difficult to estimate the effect of removing a significant voice – that of the commuters – from the chorus of urban pedestrians and street-users who might otherwise campaign together for general improvements. Disassembling the street is an effective form of divide-and-conquer, and therefore of suppressing protest, complaint, suggestion and virtually every other form of civic participation.

It also creates entirely new issues, such as the fact that residents living several floors up suddenly find themselves eye-to-eye with newly elevated pedestrians. And even among pedestrians themselves, further inequalities are created by the skywalks. Consider, for example, the commentary of one Indian flâneure:

Getting off the skywalk at Bandra Station brings home a lot of realities about the way things are constructed in India. Though the skywalk offers a safer mode of travel for people, it cannot be accessed by the people who arguably need it the most—the disabled and the elderly. There are no ramps at all at any of the entry/exit points on the skywalk, and the staircase is relatively steep and uneven at places, making navigation a bit tricky even for a relatively fitter person like me. Why is our urban planning and development so discriminatory, not to mention so poorly planned?

Skywalks don’t come cheap, either – unlike the street, there is quite a bit riding on getting them right the first time, as well as maintenance, etc. In a wholly ironic clash of public transportation modalities, it recently emerged that three already completed skywalks would have to be destroyed in order to make room for Mumbai’s evolving metro line. Evidently, the metro line was originally meant to go underground, and design changes now place it aboveground. Whoops! Thus an infrastructure of limited application becomes an enormous albatross, and the design thinking needed to fix what has always been there, and what always will be there – the street – remains untapped.


So it seems fair to ask what role, if any, does an extensive network of skywalks have to play in the urban environment. As I suggested above, like any urban intervention, skywalks are built as an answer to a particular problem. Oftentimes, it is the way in which we choose to frame the question that determines the net success of our answer. In the case of American cities, the big question was, How do we revitalize abandoned downtown districts? The failure of skywalks to do so occurred because this, in fact, was not the question that designers were answering. Rather, they were answering the question, How do we get more people to more shops? Skywalks are, in fact, a terrific answer to this, much narrower question. By creating the human version of a system of pneumatic tubes, you measure your success by the effectiveness with which you move people from one place to another. Nevertheless, at the end of the day you will still have no good answer as to why the downtown district is still empty.

In the case of Mumbai, the question is, how do we keep pedestrians moving in a ludicrously overcrowded city? Clearly, by not encouraging them to interact with anything that keeps them from getting to and from their destination – hence the preference for designing another set of pneumatic tubes. One may look at the statistic of nearly 600,000 people using the Mumbai skywalks every day as a successful metric, if that is what you are looking to measure. But if you are considering what is the cost of social interaction foregone, then a very different calculus takes precedence. In fact, the question that ought to persist first and foremost in the minds of designers is, What kind of a city do we want to live in?

One possible answer to this question actually does involve skywalks. Consider a project recently initiated by Carlos Leite. Leite and his collaborators in the Smart Informal Territories Lab have been working in the Heliopolis slum of São Paulo, where they have been developing approaches to enhancing informal settlements in ways that are minimally disruptive to the community. They have distilled down the question to an extremely elegant formulation:

How might we create public space that enhances [and] reinforces creative capacity [and] social interations, while strengthening informal networks within Heliopolis, without removing anyone?

One of the chronic difficulties that slum dwellers experience is the fact that getting around is not easy. Given the jumble of houses, lack of consistent streets and oftentimes poor access to the interior of large and irregular blocks, it is not hard to imagine why planners prefer the tabula rasa approach. However, another feature of Heliopolis is that it is built on fairly hilly territory – which is not surprising, since the area is prone to landslides and it is only in these high-risk areas that may be available to the urban poor. Leite’s innovation was to turn these idiosyncrasies from liabilities into assets, and a series of skywalks was the perfect way in which to do this. That is, the skywalks are open-air, and have many points at which one can enter or exit. They are designed not to funnel people towards commerce, or away from transportation hubs, but are meant to connect places. Designed in conversation with the community, their entire purpose is to enhance the entirety of what is already present, which is the city itself. In this sense, there may indeed be a future for skywalks.