Water Under The Bridge

The story behind Providence’s newest attraction and what it means to the city

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Something happens when you stand in the middle of the Pedestrian Bridge. The first time you walk those smooth planks, the first time you lean against the rail, after that first glimpse of the river below – you get a feeling. Just north, skyscrapers rise over Downcity. South, you see the gray girders of the Point Street Bridge. On either side of the river, ribbons of greensward outline the banks. You see old factories, new high rises, historic steeples, sculptures, signs, and trees. Flocks of seagulls spiral over the water and nestle in its ripples.

What is that feeling? You really know where you are. You’re grounded. You’re standing in the center of the capital, and this bridge is the first step in any direction you wish to go. Find a bench and lounge all day. Play a game of chess on an inlaid board. Watch the pedestrian hubbub mosey past. Take a selfie; everybody else is. Here, you can stop and stare. Take a breath. Stop moving. Providence has never had much in the way of vistas – so we built one.

“The Providence Pedestrian Bridge is an amazing new landmark for the city of Providence,” wrote Nicholas Millard on the tourism website GoProvidence. “You'll find restaurants on the east side of the river… On the west side of the bridge, you'll find the Jewelry District with plenty of historic landmarks to visit.” The blog post is peppered with scenic Instagram photos, helpful maps, and a video of crowds crossing the bridge in mellifluous slow-motion.

Like it or not, the Pedestrian Bridge is here, a permanent fixture in our ever-evolving city. You could call it our Eiffel Tower, our Sky Park, our High Line, an expensive, overzealous sculpture that you can also walk all over. After decades of design, labor, and skyrocketing budgets, it’s hard to believe that such a thing was ever completed. But the ribbon-cutting took place on August 9, and now, it belongs to everyone.

 

Mind the Gap

The original idea was pretty simple: build a footbridge across the river.

In a way, the proposal was designed to recycle old infrastructure. Until the 1990s, the Route 195 bridge used to span the same site. When the bridge was torn down, two granite supports remained. RIDOT proposed building a spartan pedestrian bridge on top, to the tune of $3 million.

Years went by. The concept grew bigger and more complicated. The price of materials ballooned. Rising sea levels meant adjusting the height of the bridge. A design contest was held. With each new roadblock, the projected timetables were pushed back. The very phrase “pedestrian bridge” became a bitter joke. Stretches of waterfront were covered in tarp and chain-link fence, a mysterious eyesore to passersby.

By 2019, that simple footbridge had morphed into a $21.9 million leviathan, with two levels, tiered seating, and the width of an oil tanker. As the Boston Globe tactfully put it: “In a state full of crumbling bridges, $22 million Providence River span stands out.”

Critics will forever debate whether that money was well used, and the phrase “decaying infrastructure” will echo for years. Within weeks of the bridge’s opening, local media reported patchy trash collection, confusion about whether cyclists could pedal over it, and even problems with the industrial-strength chess boards, which appeared to change color in different light.

The most fundamental complaint was its location: Once the novelty faded, who was actually going to walk the bridge? On one side, there’s South Water Street, with its handful of restaurants; on the other side, a sprawling greenspace that bleeds into Dyer Street. Were these two corridors so busy, so well trafficked, so throbbing with industry, that they needed a $22 million catwalk to connect them? Glancing over the entire state – and all its potholes, rust, and cracked concrete – was the Pedestrian Bridge worth 20 years of hand-wringing?
Generations from now, when all cars are autonomous and science has cured the common cold, people will still be arguing about whether the Pedestrian Bridge was worth it.

 

From Shore to Shore

But all that is over. The bridge is here, an irreversible monument. And if there’s one thing most visitors can agree on, it’s this: inFORM Studio designed a beautiful structure. If you like walkable thoroughfares to begin with, the new bridge is a handsome addition to the cityscape.

“We had recently completed a celebrated pedestrian bridge in Detroit, and it seemed like a great opportunity,” says Michael Guthrie, a principal at inFORM, which is also headquartered in Detroit.

Many may roll their eyes at out-of-town architects taking on such a hyper-local project, but for inFORM, the opportunity was a happy surprise. In 2010, Providence held its design competition for the bridge, which had already undergone several speculative drafts. A consulting engineer alerted inFORM staff, and Michael’s interest was piqued.

“After reading the brief, we were quite enthusiastic about the competition and felt this was poised to make a significant impact in an area of Providence with huge potential,” says Michael. “The idea of stitching together College Hill, Fox Point, and the Jewelry District with not only a connector but a true sense of place became our objective right away. We loved the idea of making an impact in the city and adding a place of inspiration.”

Unlike a plain steel trestle, the inFORM design curves like a boomerang. As you step onto the bridge, the planks seems to flow like a river of wood. A lower platform, nicknamed the “busker terrace,” extends southward; it’s about the size and shape of a restaurant patio. The rails are made of steel, wire, and wood, reminiscent of a cruise ship. In fact, the whole bridge has a nautical look to it – by design.

“We were quite interested in referencing the history of shipbuilding and jewelry making near the old harbor of the Jewelry District without overtly using it as a metaphor,” Michael explains. “Many reference the WWII era of shipbuilding, but there was an incredible history of craft, and we were enamored by the idea of demonstrating innovative methods in the craft of woodworking, particularly digital fabrication.”

Even calling the new structure a “pedestrian bridge” only hints at its full use. The bridge is already a major bikeway between the East End and the rebranded “Knowledge District,” a boon for students, young professionals, and anyone who doesn’t like to park a car. The bridge’s girth and seating options make it ideal for public gatherings, as well. This multi-use approach has won inFORM some attention, as other designers imagine similar projects.

Meanwhile, new development has risen all around the bridge, from the River House luxury apartment complex to the upscale Plant City food hall. The project has paved a (literal) path for Brown University; the bridge connects the main campus on College Hill to new facilities like the Warren Alpert Medical School. On foot, it’s still a trek from Thayer Street to Richmond Street – especially in winter – but plenty of students will walk that scenic, one-mile route.

“Ideas like the busker terrace were intended for a multiplicity of uses,” says Michael, “including performances, sunbathing, fishing, weddings, lunch, general relaxation, and any number of things we had not imagined. That is the beauty of a design that hopefully inspires: It does not end with the designer’s imagination.”

 

Story Arc

The bridge is still new, and there isn’t much “hard data” to assess. Time must pass before we can determine the success of the bridge. As the years elapse, the bridge will weather its share of vandalism and misuse. The crowds will ebb and flow.
But we’re still in the honeymoon phase, and residents are loving their bridge. On a sunny afternoon, the span is a flurry of activity. Cyclists push their bikes. Joggers trot past in spandex. Children play tag; teens roam in smirking packs. Wheelchairs roll by, as does the occasional Segway. In few places does Providence look more diverse – in age, lifestyle, or ethnicity.

The sun melts, and “magic hour” descends. The sky looks enormous, thanks to a 360-degree view, and it turns salmon-pink. Camera shutters start to click. Couples pose for pictures. Professional headshots are taken. Tourists hand phones to strangers, asking for a portrait – with the Superman Building looming over their shoulders – as evidence that they were here.

Long after sunset, people still come. On certain nights, musicians perform concerts, and crowds gather beneath the glow of the street lamps. Strolling South Water Street, you can hear big band melodies a half-mile away. Again, there’s that feeling, which hard data and city budgets can’t really quantify. A feeling that the city is mobile, feisty, and alive.

“It was heartwarming to see a vast, inclusive demographic at the bridge opening,” recalls Michael, who lingered after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Children playing on the terrace, professionals eating lunch, reading a book, working on a laptop, walking a dog, riding bikes and stopping for Instagram moments, a photoshoot, and even a marriage proposal. All this was in a span of a few hours of observation. That resonates with you.”