Anacostia foot bridge: a pedestrian idea?

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge in Omaha/Council Bluffs. Image: Nic221 on flickr.

The bridges over the Potomac, Anacostia, and Rock Creek are very important connections over the strongest boundaries in DC. The relatively few crossings are the bane of commuters and a significant impediment to the development and livability of the DC area. So, it’s no surprise that David Garber has been advocating for a pedestrian bridge across the Anacostia. The most recent iterations have been drawing on the NCPC‘s Extending the Legacy Plan (PDF) and subsequent plans. Plus, there have been a slew of impressive and iconic pedestrian bridges popping up in the US. I think that connecting across the river would be great, but maybe something more than just a fixed link would be best for the Anacostia.

For me, the whiz-bang factor of a bridge is offset by the need for this kind of structure to work as an urban space. Creating a more pleasant route for non-motorized commuters is a good enough end, but for more casual enjoyment, it needs some other qualities. Iconic bridges tend to beautifully express directed motion from one end to another, but not the pauses and distractions of a stroll.

In a way, you create a long pedestrian-only space with no activating buildings. Without a mass of people, those spaces are alienating or unsafe.

There are some relevant examples that approach the concept differently:

St. Pauls from the London Millennium Bridge, by Ki-Chi-Saga on Wikimedia

London’s Millennium Bridge is a very successful precedent. It’s on the long end at 1250 feet, but it’s roughly the same size as a Poplar Point Crossing would be. It is part of a pedestrian-only corridor that runs from St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Tate Modern, two of the busiest tourist attractions in the world. You have great views of the City and St. Pauls, but it’s not very wide and not a great place to linger. This, to me, represents the best example of a connector bridge.

The foot bridge that joins Chicago’s Millenium Park to Grant Park is more interesting, but less practical. In order to avoid imposing staircases, it runs at a slight incline over a serpentine course. Its relaxed experience of compressions and twists are meant more for casual strolling than a commute, but fits the park setting.

Prague’s Charles Bridge offers both experience and connection. It’s a little longer than the Millenium Bridge, but it’s twice as wide. The space is much more habitable, with vendors hawking touristy schlock on half the space. It has some interesting features, including gateways on either end, refuges, and baroque statues lining the sides. In some ways, it’s much more like a park allée than a bridge, where the inward space of the bridge is emphasized as much as the scenery around it.

There’s also the option of putting buildings on a bridge. The Washington Business Journal recently ran an article and a slideshow about some of the more famous unbuilt buildings in DC, in advance of an exhibit at the National Building Museum. Included in the accompanying slideshow is a bridge designed by Chloethiel Woodard Smith, based on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio.

Chloethiel Woodard Smith’s proposal for the Washington Channel. Image from WBJ.

The Ponte Vecchio, like Old London Bridge, accrued shops and houses over the years, becoming indistinguishable from any other city street. Smith, an influential architect who designed some of Southwest’s better buildings, proposed this bridge to cross from the Southwest Waterfront to East Potomac Park. I don’t know whether this would pass a modern environmental review, but the opportunity to put restaurants, fountains, or play structures out on the water could emulate the unique atmosphere of a pier, only without the dead end.

Triple Bridge. Image: Jaime Silva

Lastly, it might seem retardaire, but one alternative would be to build a multi-modal bridge and just make the pedestrian facilities much nicer – with big sidewalks, slow speed limits, or maybe even a sensitive grade separation, like Basel’s Dreirosenbrücke. Or, rather than completely separating uses a solution like Jože Plečnik‘s Triple Bridge could be in order. In a set of three converging bridges, the pedestrian experience is considered primary, but light motoring traffic can use it as well.

All this to say that it’s worth applying some ingenuity to the development the waterfront. The iconic bridge only takes a neighborhood so far, so there has to be something else there. Maybe the model should start by looking at not only at good bridges, but also good streets, which are good for both commuting and for strolling.

If you have any other examples of bridges that provide great pedestrian experiences, I’d love to know about them.

3 Comments

  • Noam
    July 31, 2011 - 10:02 pm | Permalink

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_W._Weeks_Bridge

    Most pretentious bridge in the world? definitely top five

    Great for walking on? Fuck yes

  • August 1, 2011 - 2:13 am | Permalink

    Weeks Bridge was opened in 1927 to carry pedestrian traffic between the Harvard Business School’s newly-built Allston campus and the Business School’s former home, Harvard’s traditional campus in Cambridge. Its concrete underbelly conceals tentacles of the University’s steam, electrical, and communications networks.

    Two things: 1. Of course Harvard built its own bridge – in the same style as the b-school. 2. “Underbelly” is not considered good style in wikipedia.

  • Paul S
    August 1, 2011 - 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I really don’t see a reason why there should be a pedestrian bridge between Anacostia and the Capitol Riverfront before Anacostia has a dense hub of activity at Poplar Point. As you correctly mention the Millenium bridge in London connects a path between St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Tate Modern. Anacostia has nothing.

    At the moment I think it’s better to focus on the planned multi-modal 11th Street and Frederick Douglas bridges. Then 15-20 years from now we can focus on the additional dedicated pedestrian bridge option if it’s truly necessary.

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