Noted urbanist urges Mpls leaders to prioritize needs of walkers, bikers

Panelists involved in a discussion on strategies for improving public spaces in the city. Credit: Photo by Sarah McKenzie

Internationally renowned urbanist Gil Penalosa urged Minneapolis community leaders to design the city around its “200 wonderful days” and not the “15 horrible ones” at a forum held at the Brave New Workshop earlier today. 

He pointed to Copenhagen, Denmark as a cold-climate city Minneapolis should take inspiration from given its thriving walking and biking culture. The Danes have a saying that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” he said.

Penalosa was the keynote speaker at the panel, “Placemaking & the Public Realm in Downtown Minneapolis,” hosted by Kjersti Monson, the city’s Director of Long Range Planning. Other panelists included Council Member Jacob Frey (Ward 3); Ben Shardlow, Public Realm Initiatives Director for the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District; Founding CEO of Greater MSP Michael Langley; Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition executive director Ethan Fawley; State Director of the Trust for Public Land Susan Schmidt; and Assistant Superintendent for Planning at the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Bruce Chamberlain. 

Penalosa is a former parks commissioner for Bogota, Columbia and executive director of 8-80 Cities, a nonprofit based in Toronto working on helping transform cities all over the world to make them more people friendly. He is in the Twin Cities through Friday for the third annual Placemaking Residency organized by the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation.

Penalosa also warned Minneapolis leaders about its “net deficit of Millennials,” noting that too many college graduates are leaving the Twin Cities when they are done with their education. “That is a symptom that something is not working,” he said.  

He suggested successful cities need to think about designing urban spaces and infrastructure that are hospitable to people of all age ranges — from 8 to 80 year olds. Urban designers should focus on street improvements that are friendly for walkers and bikers. “Walking and cycling is not a frivolity,” he said. 

Penalosa also advocated capping speed limits at 20 mph in urban areas to improve safety and move away from a car-centric culture. He also criticized the city’s skyway system, suggesting it robs downtown streets of vibrancy. 

He pointed to a few cities to show that dramatic change is possible in a relatively short period of time. When he was a parks commissioner in Bogota, he helped oversee the addition of 200 new parks. Paris has added 1,451 bike stations and removed 5,000 parking spots in recent years. New York City has turned Times Square into a gathering place that attracts yoga events, and Melborne, Australia has transformed its waterfront.

Penalosa’s pointers for downtown planners and leaders come as several projects are in the planning stages for downtown Minneapolis, including plans for a major new park in Downtown East next to the new Vikings stadium along with parks in the North Loop and one near the Central Library; the RiverFirst initiative, which promises to transform the riverfront and improve connections to downtown; an ambitious $50 million redesign for Nicollet Mall; and the Hennepin Cultural District project, an effort to revitalize the street and raise its profile as a thriving destination for the arts.