Bridge Over Digitally Rendered Water

by by Sonja Boet-Whitaker

The abandoned section of I-195, which crosses the Providence River just north of the Point St. bridge but south of WaterFire, has become a sacred place for me. On overcast days there is no end to the bleak greyness of this place. The lines on the pavement and the signs above are bigger in person than at high speeds from car windows. The highway is not human sized, just like the huge abandoned wharves and dry docks that I wandered around in Amsterdam. This old highway bridge is where I come to see the real Providence, without the polished veneer of the Renaissance. It’s the last place I can savor my nostalgia for Amsterdam, where I can pretend to be back on the wharves pretending to belong among the squatters. I go to the abandoned highway to get perspective, to see the lights of the city over the water and to see the dark hulking forms of the empty power plants.

This wasteland—unwanted by buyers and by the city for at least two years, its only official use the storage of construction materials—will be the site of the Providence River Pedestrian Bridge Project. It is being reimagined as an opportunity for a new form of urban revitalization. Rather than the large-scale clearance projects or highway reshuffling of the previous generation of urban revitalization, this is one of the smaller infill and adaptive reuse projects that characterize today’s urban planning efforts. The perennial concerns of Providence are, of course, still present: the need to make the city, and the waterfront in particular, a tourist destination. Fortunately, this project appears to be an attempt to move beyond that obsession. This project would build on the existing highway bridge (where, in an attempt to capture the absurdity of being in the middle of a highway, I have taken to lying down) and turn it into a bike and pedestrian thoroughfare. It will be another stitch to draw the sides of the river closer.

On Wednesday, November 3 in Providence City Hall, the eleven finalist designs, chosen by a selection committee from a pool of 47, were publicly unveiled. Perhaps you don’t know Providence City Hall. It is forbidding and cold, grey stone that watches over Kennedy Plaza with a sneer. The front door was locked and closed off with an iron gate. Even the caterers had trouble getting in, but with enough time spent banging at the doors, we got in, into the swirl of rich patterns and colors and brass banisters and an impressive staircase that drew us upwards. On the second floor: RISD-created textiles responding to the Providence built environment. Empty and quiet. On the third floor: Providence River Pedestrian Bridge competition. Bustling.

Once we were in, the democratic atmosphere surprised me. Well-known designers, politicians, and planners mixed anonymously with students. There were no nametags, and the posters were identified by design group number, also without names. It was the day after the elections, there was a vitality and energy in the crowd, everyone was speaking loudly and excitedly. While the competition was not completely open, many different groups submitted proposals, and the selection committee includes representatives from a broad range of interest groups. The committee is looking for feedback from the public through a Flickr group: A final decision will be made by the end of November.

The first person that talked to us congratulated us on our bike helmets. He informed us he was keeping tabs on the designers, making sure they included bike lanes in the designs. He knew we would understand. He told us, those designers, sometimes they just don’t care. Then he disappeared into the crowd.

Most of the designs actually are bike-accessible, and many have a designated bike-only lane. The first posterboard, at the top of the stairs, had a smooth, curving center path, with great sweeps of pavement coming off of it as though the designers had grabbed handfuls of the bridge’s fabric and pulled it out into place: a sloping seating area, a great prow to overlook the city. Several designs played off the WaterFire concept, making the bridge into stadium seating or a viewing platform for a drama that would unfold on the river itself. One design invoked a maritime aesthetic, suspending the bridge surface from masts strung with loops of cable. One common theme was the use of the bridge as a connection between small park areas on either side of the river, expanding the green space across the bridge.

The designs were expected to have a focus on reuse and sustainability: the required reuse of the existing bridge piers and the broader environmental impacts of the project. In some of the designs, this meant only the inclusion of low-energy LED lighting. For other groups, the use of the existing structure seemed to be a primary element in the design. The proposed cost of the project was $4 million, but these designs were rarely limited by that consideration, creating lush café and patio spaces populated—in the renderings—by well-dressed socialites.

A couple of the proposed designs looked as though they would immediately fall into disrepair. Designs with dead-end paths or access to the piers at water level were tempting in their creative use of space, but the blind spots they created would be difficult to maintain and would probably become decrepit or dangerous. On the other end of the spectrum, bridges that created homogenous open space threatened to become an extension of Renaissance Providence: an unwelcoming bleak expanse, unable to attract the crowds of people it was clearly designed for. The most popular designs among the students in the crowd were able to both create open green space and make the bridge into an efficient link for bike commuters.

This project feels like a legitimate attempt on the part of the city to cater to the needs of the people who live here. If the city really cares about green spaces and bike commuting and sustainability, as I do, I might be convinced to live here in this city for just a little bit longer so that I can feel the stranded parts of the city come back together. I can so clearly see a future in which the project is working and people are starting to come back downtown. I accept this project as a replacement to the dirty gritty abandoned highway that I love.

Sonja Boet-Whitaker B’11 wants to go get coffee with you.