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Tilikum Crossing in Portland, OR, is pretty cool. Can we do better? | Photo by Alex via flickr

Turkish novelist Mehmet Mural Ildan once wrote: “The fate of the bridges is to be lonely; because bridges are to cross not to stay.” A lovely line, but we disagree.

Several months ago, the city of Portland made headlines for its new bridge over the Willamette River, Tilikum Crossing. The bridge drew attention because it includes lanes for bikes, pedestrians, and public transit – but not cars. Even for such a proudly urbanist city, this is an impressive achievement that speaks highly of the city’s transportation priorities. A great start, but in thinking about all the possibilities of these unique public spaces, can we do even better with our bridges?

Bridges play multiple roles in the built environment. As functional infrastructure, they facilitate transport for hundreds of thousands of people per day. They can be architectural marvels, cultural icons, and tourist attractions. While they are physical connectors, making movement possible between different geographical areas, they can also serve as social connectors, facilitating commerce and interaction between people. In some cases they can even be emotional connectors – symbols with which people identify, or visual icons that remind them of the places they call home.

In most cases, bridges are part of the existing street grid, and we’ve written at length about the importance of treating streets as places – as destinations to spend time in, not simply to pass through. If we apply that same philosophy to bridges, we can open up a huge amount of public space in growing cities and make bridges more of a connection between neighborhoods and less of a barrier, not just a physical crossing but a social or emotional link. This idea is not new: people have been constructing multifunctional bridges for centuries, and we can still learn a great deal from these structures and the historical traditions surrounding them.

A brief and partial history of great bridges

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Left: The Rialto Bridge in Venice, crossing the Grand Canal | Photo by gnuckx via flickr
Right: Shops along Venice’s Rialto Bridge | Photo by Simon via

Europe has a long tradition of bridges as places, and perhaps the most iconic example comes from a city that depends on its crossings more than most. While its gondolas and canals may resonate most in our collective imagination, Venice’s bridges are the connecting tissue that binds the historic city together. Of those bridges, the Rialto stands as both an engineering marvel (completed in 1591, contemporary architects said it would never last — and yet, here we are) and a functional, vibrant place (one that, like much of the city, is regularly overrun with tourists — but in this case the blame doesn’t lie with the bridge). With shops lining both sides, people don’t just cross the water on their way to somewhere else — they stop, talk to neighbors, buy things, and generally engage in the activities of the public realm.

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Passersby chat with vendors along Prague’s 14th century Charles Bridge | Photo by Peter via flickr

While the Rialto was built with commerce in mind, another historic structure, Prague’s Charles Bridge, adopted this role later in its life. Dating back to the 14th century, the Charles was built to accommodate pedestrians and horses, but was later adapted for horse-drawn trams, buses, and cars. In 1965, it was returned to pedestrians, and today it hosts vendors across its span, who benefit from the heavy foot traffic. A monumental work of architecture in and of itself, the bridge is also host to a remarkable selection of public art, and since its construction over 30 statues have been added, mostly during the 17th and 18th century (most of which have been replaced with replicas, while the originals are housed in museums whose climates are a bit more predictable).

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Shops line the lower level of Istanbul’s Galata Bridge while fishermen stake claim to the top | Photo by Erik Cleves Kristensen via flickr

Further East, the city of Istanbul has a more modern example – the Galata Bridge – which spans the Golden Horn. While its top deck is a standard utilitarian car and tram crossing, the lower deck features bars, restaurants, a wet market, and numerous other shops. Some pedestrians do favor the upper deck of the bridge, which is a popular fishing spot with easy access to fish markets interested in a fresh catch. The bridge is a destination, and better yet, it is so seamlessly connected to the shore on both sides that it links up a larger network of public spaces. Rather than segmenting the urban fabric, the Galata Bridge draws the city together.

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Dallas’s Continental Avenue Bridge. Note the people sitting, not just passing by | Photo courtesy The Trinity Dallas

Europe doesn’t have a monopoly on great bridges, and over the last few years the United States has added several interesting examples. Once Santiago Calatrava designed Margaret Hunt Hill bridge in Dallas, which opened in 2012, the old highway crossing was converted into a pedestrian and bike span, the Continental Avenue Bridge. Going a step beyond traditional pedestrian bridges like Tilikum Crossing, designers transformed the entire area into a linear park, complete with giant chess boards, bocce courts, a playground, a fountain, and a “meditation labyrinth.”

Fixing planning mistakes with better bridges

The construction of high-speed freeways in the 20th century inadvertently devastated the very cores of many U.S. cities, creating a deep divide between downtowns and residential neighborhoods. Often, the bridges connecting them have been constructed as extensions of city streets. This has led to a familiar pattern: city streets are strong, vibrant places near the core, but start to die off as they approach the highway. This pattern is then mirrored on the other side of the bridge, with the street improving the further it gets from the highway. Naturally, part of this is due to the unpleasantness of the highway itself (its noise and smog), but the bridge’s design also plays a part. With nothing encouraging people to linger, highway bridges become gaps in a city’s place network – dead zones that bleed into the surrounding streets.

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Yoga in Klyde Warren Park. Would you guess this is sitting over a freeway? | Photo by Juliet Kahne

Fortunately, several cities have devised innovative solutions for reconnecting divided neighborhoods. Dallas’s Klyde Warren Park, for example, is 5.2 acre space that was built entirely over a large section of sunken freeway, connecting the city’s Downtown to its Arts District. With a performance space and numerous food options, along with a dog park, playground, and games area, the park certainly has no lack of things to do, and it is a bold improvement on the simple road bridges it replaced. And, because it was built over a highway, it was all freely available space – a rare find in a major U.S. city.

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Providing shopping opportunities along an otherwise normal freeway bridge brings connectivity back to Columbus, OH | Photo by Ian Freimuth via flickr

Columbus, Ohio, offers a simpler example that dates back to 2004. Instead of a park that takes up three blocks worth of freeway, they’ve constructed a modern Rialto in miniature. The High Street Cap lines a traditional road bridge with shops along its periphery, and its design mimics the style of the demolished Daniel Burnham-designed Union Station that was once located on the site. This idea is catching on — many other U.S. cities are taking advantage of the space available above freeways in order to expand their public space network and improve connectivity.

Design-led bridges: a recipe for disaster

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A rendering of London’s future Garden Bridge | Image from Forgemind Archimedia via flickr

As with other public spaces, a place-led approach is key in designing bridges as community places. London has learned this the hard way with its “Garden Bridge.” Designed by Thomas Heatherwick, the bridge has come under fire for being over-budget and unnecessary. And worse, in a city that is already heavy with surveillance and controls in public space, the private group running the bridge plans to enforce draconian prohibitions within the space: “No running, no music, no picnics, no groups of eight or more, no kite flying, no visits after midnight.” That, along with a plan to track the cellphone signals of everyone using the park/bridge, has led to an impressive public outcry that threatens to sink the project altogether.

London can take a lesson from Providence, RI, and the placemaking process that led the design of a (currently unconstructed) bridge across the Providence River, which will connect the city’s East Side to the Downtown. Getting the community to lay out their vision for the park before it is designed allowed Providence to avoid the pitfalls of an over-designed and passive garden – similar to London proposal. The lesson: thinking of a bridge as just a “linear park” is just as problematic as just as treating it solely as a piece of infrastructure. Great public spaces are complex organisms that should engage a mix of uses and people, and conceiving them as single-use spaces is what left us with such boring bridges in the first place.

As cities across the U.S. consider plans to replace their rapidly-aging infrastructure, we hope these examples offer a compelling case for building bridges through the lens of placemaking. Cities with bridges crossing bodies of water can take advantage of their scenic surroundings and create world class destinations that draw people to stay, and not just pass through. And those who have raised barriers in the hearts of their communities can start to mend those wounds with innovative highway caps. Bridges are, by design, meant to bring people together. All we have to do is let them.