The Long Walk

A year ago, I made a trip to Copenhagen, which is arguably one of the most walkable cities on the planet. Despite the presence of real winter—it was snowy and around twenty-five degrees while I was there—the streets were full of people walking, to shops and parks and jobs, as well as to and from the extensive, easy-to-use subway system. Downtown Copenhagen looked like an enormous, ongoing street festival, much of it having been designated pedestrian-only. People roamed on foot and on bikes, dressed in fur boots and vests and giant hats (Viking fashion is very big in Copenhagen). Street vendors sold vegetables, flowers, and disconcertingly blazing-red hot dogs that were nonetheless delicious.

Coming from Minneapolis, I found this spectacle quite inspiring. There it was, February, and I was witness to genuine, thriving street life. The benefits were readily visible. The Danes, who wash down lunches of pâté, cheese, and hard-boiled eggs doused in cream sauce with glasses of beer and akvavit, happily trundled along, fit as fiddles, nary a one of them morbidly obese. Even puffed up in furry outfits, they looked slim.

Gung ho and rosy cheeked, I returned home vowing to follow the Danish example. I had been as guilty as anyone of hopping into the car to drive three blocks for a carton of half-and-half. Walking, I thought, would make me healthier and happier, and at the least lessen the cumulative impact of all that half-and-half. This alien habit of putting one foot in front of the other just couldn’t be a mere matter of geography. After all, our weather isn’t much more extreme than Copenhagen’s. The average temperature in January, Minneapolis’ coldest month, is twelve degrees—nothing a fleece dickey can’t handle. The average in July, our hottest month, is seventy-four.

Yet, while the typical Copenhagener is willing to walk a mile or more to get where she is going, for Americans “the general research is that most people will not walk more than two blocks,” said Judith Martin. She is director of the University of Minnesota’s urban studies program and chair of the Minneapolis Planning Commission, as well as an avid hoofer herself. “Everybody here has a car. Even everybody who lives downtown has a car.”

Determined to stretch my tolerance level beyond two blocks, to eight or nine blocks, a mile even, and with the image of those slender Danes in the back of my mind, I began walking. Just about every day in the past year, I’ve put on comfortable shoes, with no regard for style, and gone where I needed to go. I walked to the local grocery, hiked downtown for dinner or shopping, and trekked from Northeast to the warehouse district for work. Granted, my employer doesn’t impose a dress code—well, I think we have to be dressed—so I was free to show up in tennis shoes, a little dewy under the arms.

What did I find, after a year of strolling the curiously gum-free streets and sidewalks of my home city? Walking is easy. Minneapolis is not.

 

Copenhagen wasn’t always the calf-sculpting city it is today. In fact, it used to be a lot like Minneapolis, loaded with parking lots and overrun by cars, a place where people squeezed by each other on skinny sidewalks, choking on exhaust. Then, in 1962, the city’s main drag, Strøget, was converted to a pedestrian walkway, with no cars allowed. It was an experiment, and was greeted as such. People were skeptical. Local papers proclaimed, “We are Danes, not Italians.” Sounding a lot like Minnesotans, they stated, “Using public space is contrary to Nordic mentality.” Nevertheless, the new Strøget was an immediate, resounding success. The street filled with people, and has been heavily trafficked since.

Led by renowned Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl, the city converted more streets in the following years. And then, gradually, over the course of several decades, it added a series of public plazas, usually by tearing up parking lots. The changes were gradual, so as to be absorbed without much disruption. People adapted and shifted their mode of transport from autos to mass transit or bikes—or walking. Gehl gained the cooperation of lawmakers by conducting studies and presenting statistics that proved walking’s many benefits. Not only is it a cheap, quiet, and environmentally friendly way to get around, but it offers financial perks too. Pedestrians are generally less destination oriented than drivers. They window shop, so they spend more money. Eventually, nearly a square mile of Copenhagen’s center was car-restricted. Gehl called it “taking back” the streets, which is quite different than the American version, which involves the occasional neighborhood barbecue and lots of dialing of the police.

The idea underpinning Copenhagen’s transformation is an optimistic one. It dictates that squares and streets—public spaces—can be whatever people want or need them to be. They are flexible, open to interpretation; activities occurring there are not predetermined, but allowed to organically evolve. Cars were replaced by café tables, concerts, festivals, markets, even the occasional juggler. “First life, then spaces, then buildings,” Gehl has said. “The other way around never works.”

Gehl’s way has worked wonderfully. At all hours, Copenhagen is lit up and active. Due to the predominance of old buildings, and because new development tends to be human in scale, the city’s core is lined with small, interesting storefronts. There are endless restaurants and shops in which to sit or browse. Because it’s a place where people want to be, Copenhagen has succeeded in getting those people out of their cars. According to recent statistics, eighty percent of city-center traffic is by foot; fourteen percent is by bicycle. Gehl, a font of philosophical interpretations, parses cities into four categories: the “traditional city,” where there always have been good walking routes, markets, and the like; the “invaded city,” which used to be pedestrian friendly, but is now car dominated; the “abandoned city,” where pedestrians have given up entirely; and the “reconquered city,” which is where he places Copenhagen. Just try to guess in which category Minneapolis fits.

On the first day of my walking regimen, I slipped into hiking boots and filled a backpack with various work papers and skin lubricants. It was March, so nobody was outside. Nobody who wasn’t in a car, that is. A recent survey asked Minneapolis residents to list their primary mode of transportation; seventy-four percent travel by car, sixteen percent by bus. Only two percent listed each bicycling and walking. That’s not so surprising when you consider other city statistics, which show that the total number of “vehicle miles traveled” increased 129 percent between 1970 and 1990, and that since the 1950s, more than five hundred miles of highway have been constructed in the metropolitan area.

I marched along the sidewalk on Marshall Street Northeast, as cars spit up beads of gravel like BBs. I crossed littered sidewalks, closed sidewalks, unshoveled sidewalks. At the foot of the Broadway Avenue bridge, which has to be one of the most unpleasant in the Twin Cities, I was stopped in my tracks by a driver idling in a crosswalk. Of course, he was looking the other way. The backs of drivers’ heads are now very familiar to me, but in those days, as a new walker, the experience was fresh. “Hey!” I yelled, to no avail. The streets of Minneapolis can be lonely and infuriating for those on foot, but blaming local drivers for not noticing pedestrians is akin to blaming Africans for not knowing all the words for snow.

As I headed into downtown, I found my route blocked by The Landings, an enormous suburban-style condominium development that runs along West River Parkway. I picked my way through a labyrinth of winding sidewalks designed to look private (and maybe they are), parking lots, and all manner of fencing. The few gates that would allow passage were so cleverly disguised that I had to squint to detect them.

That was not at all what the city envisioned back in 1996, when it unveiled “Downtown Minneapolis 2010: Continuing the Vision into the 21st Century”—the planning document that is still the most current for downtown. The idea was to “guide development” in order to create a city “that is constantly alive and filled with people.” One goal of the plan was to eliminate the barriers separating downtown proper from the riverfront, the area’s only significant stretch of green, because “open space serves as a recreational and visual amenity, and its presence lends identity, value and focus to an area.” Unfortunately, in the case of The Landings, as so often happens, the interests of private developers and homeowners overwhelmed those of the public. Currently, in the mile between Plymouth and Hennepin Avenues, only Fourth Avenue connects the warehouse district to the Mississippi River.

In fact, it feels as if the whole of our downtown has been constructed to suit developers and businesspeople more so than ordinary citizens. The various “uses” within the city center are grouped into districts, with very little continuity between them: There’s an entertainment district, a theater district, an office district, a retail district, a sex-business district, and, at least until the recent spate of condo building began mixing things up, residential districts. This sort of development, akin to the design of department stores, is thought to boost sales by grouping like businesses together. But it leaves us with a fragmented, patchwork-style downtown, where various blocks are in use only during certain hours of the day or night.

This approach to planning is the reason a person can walk along West River Parkway north of Plymouth Avenue with no path or sidewalk or benches or landscaping to speak of—and then abruptly, simply by crossing one street, enter into an urban wonderland where all of these amenities exist (and, not coincidentally, enhance the value of rows of fancy townhomes). A city, ideally, should be more fluid than ours. It should encourage movement to and through all of its parts.

Minneapolis also has a tendency to favor large-scale, all-in-one development projects over intricate, more organic design plans. Megaprojects are generally more profitable for developers, and less complicated for the city. Therefore, our downtown has become a veritable museum of shopping-mall development. Take your pick: City Center, Gaviidae Common, the IDS Crystal Court, Block E, the Conservatory (R.I.P.). City planners will argue that their preferences are changing, but the difference appears strictly cosmetic. Block E might have a varied facade and several entrances, but that doesn’t make it any less a mall. “Almost all cities have a tendency to go for these megaprojects,” said Margaret Crawford, a Harvard professor of urban design and planning theory, in an interview back when Block E was still a gleam in its developer’s eye. “And it changes the very nature of the city. Instead of being fine grained and having surprises, it turns out to be a big chunk with virtually no surprises.”

 

Several weeks ago, Mayor R.T. Rybak held a “Great City Forum” in order to express his goal of “reweaving the urban fabric” of Minneapolis, connecting neighborhoods, green spaces, transit, and other amenities. “I’m very interested in improving the pedestrian experience so that we can create excitement just in walking down the street,” he was quoted as saying in the Downtown Journal. Perhaps his most ambitious goal is to re-make Washington Avenue as “our next grand boulevard … a grand experience connecting the University, Downtown, the North Loop and all the cultural experiences along it.”

Unfortunately for Rybak, mayoral power within Minneapolis’ government is weak compared with that of other cities, making it difficult to accomplish such expansive, long-term goals. Here, the power rests mostly with the City Council and agencies like the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. One council member may see the logic in improving the city’s approach to urban planning, another may not: stalemate. The slow, methodical transformation of Copenhagen happened because Gehl lobbied for, and stood guard over, his vision for decades. The greening of Chicago—including the creation of downtown’s vast new Millennium Park—was possible only because Mayor Richard Daley, now in his fifth term, possessed the commitment, and the power, to make it happen.

A vision similar to Rybak’s was detailed back in 1996, when Sharon Sayles Belton was in office and Minneapolis was cooking up its 2010 plan, which called for a city center that “is pedestrian oriented, public in character, and rich in experience.” This goal was presented in various ways, but included “a high quality system of parks, plazas, and tree lined streets”—specifically, a public plaza along Hennepin Avenue—and “a vastly improved transit system,” along with more inviting street-level commercial design. How is it that a decade later, just four years from 2010, hardly any of these goals have been met?

Martin nailed it on the head when she said, “A plan is a theoretical document until there is a development proposal that can make something happen.” In other words, because developers have not approached the city, hats in hand and briefcases full of financial schemes, the plan has mostly collected dust. Of course, even if its goals aren’t realized, documents like the downtown plan do serve at least to draw attention to problems. “The 2010 plan was very much about trying to reorient the perspective about downtown,” Martin pointed out, “in the sense of saying … why do we have to have the street be this completely unpleasant, really hostile environment?”

By summer, I had figured out a route to downtown that didn’t include crossing the Broadway bridge. I cut through private property and walked over a train trestle where only a few of the boards were rotting through, and the “No Trespassing” sign had been obliterated by graffiti. Several times, though, I had to dash into the bushes to avoid being caught by police. One day, I was too slow. “What part of no trespassing don’t you understand?” the sweating, crew-cutted railroad cop asked. He threatened me with a fine and even jail time, but didn’t make an arrest. In fact, he didn’t even bother to get out of his SUV.

The river’s edge was no longer abandoned. All of the joggers had run gleefully out the doors of the gyms where they’d been holed up for winter and paraded onto the waterfront, and even onto the barren sidewalks of downtown proper. At lunchtime, workers soaked up much-needed vitamin D; downtown’s benches filled quickly, leaving people to perch on the edges of planters. Some were lucky enough to land tables at the smattering of outdoor cafes along Nicollet Mall, where the only unpleasantness shoots from the tailpipes of passing buses.

Many have wondered indignantly why we must have buses on the most pedestrian-friendly street in all of downtown Minneapolis. Martin’s answer: “We don’t have to have them. I think the only reason for buses on Nicollet Mall is habit. And retailers tend to be very nervous when stuff isn’t going by their front doors.” Of course, the city experimented, quite successfully, with re-routing buses for several hours in the evenings last summer; there were no logistical catastrophes, nor did the street’s commerce crash. In fact, several Nicollet restaurants requested that the change be made permanent, and round-the-clock, from May to September.

This is one of many easy, no-frills, low-cost changes that would make downtown vastly more pleasant for walkers. Rather than waiting for a grand development plan—and a deep-pocketed developer to implement it—the city could, as in Copenhagen, make gradual changes. It could convert a single one-way street into a two-way, slowing traffic. And if that proved successful, it could then convert more. It could plant additional curbside trees for shade and wind protection. After all, as the 2010 plan notes, “Dollar for dollar, street trees are probably the best design investment downtown can make.”

For a city that prides itself on livability, especially one that maintains an extensive park system, including the much heralded and Keebleresque-sounding “Grand Rounds,” it’s puzzling, this reluctance to beautify downtown. Aside from the river and Loring Park, there is almost no greenspace anywhere. It’s another symptom of the way planners have divided things up. In recent history, downtown hasn’t been a neighborhood where great numbers of people live (only since 2000 has the population swelled to thirty thousand, from either nine thousand or twenty thousand, depending on whom you ask), but rather a place where business is conducted, end of story. Therefore it didn’t need parks.

Recently, UnitedHealth CEO Bill McGuire offered to build a 7.5-acre park just east of the new Guthrie Theater, along the river. If he gets his way—and likely he will, since he’s offering to design it and also pay for its building and maintenance; an alluring package for the city—the park will feature trails and hundreds of trees. “There is a history of Minneapolis having these spaces,” he said, “and I think this vision’s been a bit lost, to be polite.”

Yet, McGuire’s park wouldn’t fix the center of downtown, where there are plazas scattered here and there, but only one significant patch of public grass, at a place called Cancer Survivors Park, on Nicollet and Washington Avenues. One sunny afternoon, I set out to eat lunch there and found it befuddling to say the least. Part of a national chain of similar well-intentioned memorials, the space is not so much a park as it is a reminder of mortality under the guise of inspiration. The grass is tiered, perfectly trimmed, and rarely trod upon. Instead, the occasional visitor is encouraged to navigate the “Positive Mental Attitude Walk,” a cement sidewalk that skirts the borders of the grass. It’s lined with illuminated metal plaques bearing such messages as, “Cancer is the most curable of all chronic diseases” and “There are treatments for every type of cancer.”

Determined to eat my sandwich, I sat down on a bench that happened to directly face a stone wall. I looked up and noticed an engraving, the face of a woman who had died. Next to her image were the words, “I am here.” I zipped up my backpack and went home.

 

Of course, Minneapolis had the opportunity to build a great park or town square on the site of the Block E entertainment complex, current home to chains like Applebee’s and the Hard Rock Cafe. The space was vacant for more than a decade after the city tore down a block’s worth of viable small businesses, so there was plenty of time to contemplate what to do with it. Occupying an iconic spot in downtown—some would call it the heart of the city—Block E was up for grabs. In the mid-nineties, a group called FORECAST Public Artworks proposed turning it into a plaza, an open and malleable place for exhibits, outdoor movies, ice skating, festivals, and so forth.

A public plaza would have fit right in with the city’s desire to be more people-friendly, if you believe the 2010 plan, which recommends just such a place “in the Entertainment District to provide a focus, amenity and a location for outdoor performances for the surrounding theaters, Target Center and other entertainment destinations.”

What we got instead was another mall. “There was just no way Block E was ever going to be a public square,” Martin explained. “There was just too much public money into it. And the city needed to get its money back.” Again, civic interests were sold out to the developer with the slickest presentation, and now Block E stands as a monument to Minneapolis’ ongoing failure of imagination, its inability to conceive of downtown as anything other than a place being abandoned for (and in direct competition with) the suburbs. It’s curious that so many Americans who grew up cruising malls flock to places like Copenhagen, Paris, Madrid, and Oaxaca for their vacations. It’s as if the thriving public life in these cities is a fantasy, something rare and impractical, nothing that could take root here.

That mindset explains, at least in part, why our urban center feels like no place at all. It has come to resemble a sieve. Surrounded by a ribbon of freeway, it’s rife with on and off ramps, enormous boxes of parking stalls, and streets that funnel motor vehicles in and out as quickly as possible.

With downtown’s streets designed with autos in mind, it’s little wonder that pedestrians turn to the skyways, even when the weather couldn’t be more perfect for an outdoor stroll. The attraction can’t be the skyways themselves—carpeted, climate-controlled tubes, lined mostly with chain stores and take-out joints. While Minneapolis continues to take pride in its extensive network, other cities, like Cincinnati, Dallas, and Hartford, Connecticut, have renounced their skyways (or skywalks, or sky bridges). Partly, that’s due to the fact that they draw people and commercial business off the streets, and a city without street life isn’t much of a city. “If I could take a cement mixer and pour cement in and clog up the tunnels, I would do it today,” Dallas mayor Laura Miller said recently. “It was the worst urban-planning decision that Dallas has ever made.”

Martin was dubious about the potential for a skyway backlash in Minneapolis. “I haven’t heard anybody talk about getting rid of the skyways,” she said. Forcing people onto the streets, making them walk around in the snow and heat like in the olden days, to her thinking, seems punitive. “If people have no alternative, then sure they will be out on the street. But it’s a little prescriptive, you know?” Once, skyways must have seemed like a futuristic dream. Now, ironically, getting people back onto the sidewalks is the crazy idea.

One warm fall day, I set out to go from one end of downtown to the other using only skyways. I passed through the US Bank Plaza, One Financial Plaza, the Northstar Center, the Wells Fargo Center, and wound up in the all-but-abandoned City Center—not just disoriented, but thoroughly depressed. I made for the ground floor of City Center and stepped out onto Hennepin Avenue, with its scraggly, non-shade-producing trees and scattered benches. The wind blew bits of paper along the sidewalk, past giant empty storefronts that used to house the Olive Garden and TGI Friday’s and Snyders Drug Store.

Besides the allure of development dollars, part of the attraction of malls and skyways over civic squares and public sidewalks is their perceived safety. There are various ways to address the problem of street crime. One approach says that more people on the sidewalk makes for a safer sidewalk. Crowds and street-level stores and cafes leave fewer dark corners in which scoundrels can hide. But the more popular approach seems to be to forsake the street in favor of fortresses with parking ramps attached. Even the progressive-sounding 2010 plan spoke in contradictory terms on the issue of safety, touting the value of “street level” commerce while repeatedly praising the “secure and convenient” malls of the suburbs. Much of what the city has done planning-wise, whether carving up downtown into districts, building miles of skyways, or throwing up mall after parking ramp after mall, may in fact have made the streets more dangerous.

“There is a lot of concern about security and safety,” said Martin, “so you create these environments that are read by the middle-class people who use them as secure and safe and then it’s OK. Is that the best way in which to build a city? I’m not so sure.” Martin supposes that the recent influx of downtown condo residents may spark development on a smaller, more flexible, more human scale. The city’s newest residents tend to be on the prosperous side, thus they have political clout. Already, two grocery stores are going in. Perhaps parks and other amenities will follow.

 

I told myself it was just snowing outside, but in fact, there was a blizzard. Shortly after starting out for work, I realized that my boots were too short for the accumulated snow, made deeper by plow overflow from the street. I returned home and changed. Tough going it was indeed, like walking through sand. Onward I struggled, bundled up, quite alone, pointed into the snow that glanced off my eyeballs like tiny shards of glass.

The common misperception is that winter is the worst season for walking. Yet—early sunsets and the occasional ten-below-zero spell aside—winter is actually quiet, pretty, and cool enough to keep a pedestrian from overheating. There I was, crossing the bridge and peacefully crunching snow, maybe too much snow actually, when I spotted another walker headed toward me. Slowly, we came together in the whiteness. “Nice weather,” I said. “It sucks,” he retorted. That was the extent of the exchange. Except that after our passing I was able to step in his tracks and he, I presume, in mine.

It occurred to me that it shouldn’t be so hard to be a pedestrian. If Minneapolis had a decent transportation system, I wouldn’t have had to walk two miles in the blowing snow. Or cruise slippery streets in a car, either. In the early 1930s, the golden age of Twin City Rapid Transit, our system boasted 530 miles of track and more than one thousand streetcars—a network so extensive that it was said at the time that no Minneapolis resident lived more than three blocks from a station. Those figures indicate that our train system was once as good as, or maybe even better than, the one Copenhagen has now. But, along with rail in other American cities, Twin City Rapid Transit was unceremoniously dismantled in the forties and fifties. And now, through budget cuts and related fare hikes, the bus system is being undone as well.

When asked whether Minneapolis could regain its designation as a place where both mass transit and pedestrians thrive, a place akin to Copenhagen or Chicago or even New York, Martin was quick to point out differences in culture. Sure, mindsets can change, she said, but “it’s a slow process … I don’t think there is anything that’s going to give you a crowded street at six o’clock on a January evening.” That seems a bit resigned, considering that thousands of people gather along Nicollet Mall during the Christmas season to watch a series of Holidazzle parades. If there are reasons for people to come downtown—festivals, concerts, and so forth—they will come.

Of course, crowds flocking to a Broadway show or ball game don’t in and of themselves constitute thriving street life. For that, you need commuters on foot, shoppers, residents—all kinds of people walking regularly, if not daily, from here to there. Martin was willing to concede that downtown’s outdoor culture would be enhanced by increased bus and train service. “If transportation was improved,” she said, “it would put more people on the street. For sure.”

Interestingly, usage of the Hiawatha light rail line has been greater than expected, averaging more than twenty-six thousand riders each weekday. That’s a strong case for more of the same. Like Strøget, that first pedestrian street in Copenhagen, light rail’s Route 55 has been warmly embraced. If transit is provided, people here clearly are happy to use it.

By 7:00 in the evening, I’d finished a couple of after-work shots of Jameson at a downtown pub. The snow had ceased, leaving everything covered in a beautiful, pristine blanket of white—except for the sidewalks, which, thankfully, had been plowed. I crossed the Hennepin Avenue bridge, giving myself the necessary extra time to reach my destination. I considered the various small ways in which I’d adjusted to accommodate walking, and also the many wonders of Handi Wipes. It all seemed effortless now, natural even. My experiment was largely finished, but still my car sat at home in the parking lot, one of its tires slowly going flat.

Once over the river, in Northeast, I gazed back at Minneapolis’s sparkling downtown, stunning against the starry night. A train passed beneath a nearby bridge, slowly gliding toward the skyline, no doubt carrying coal or some other commodity. If those tracks carried people, I thought, maybe I wouldn’t have been standing by myself.