Bridge Over Troubled Waters

The new pedestrian bridge is late, costly, and stunning

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At last, the Pedestrian Bridge is here. The structure is built, the chain link fence is coming down, and people are crossing the river on foot. The impossible has happened – after decades of design, labor, and skyrocketing budgets, the bridge is ready for your feet. The ribbon-cutting took place August 9, and countless locals have moseyed over its floorboards ever since.

Not everyone is happy about this. The idea was once simple: When the Route 195 bridge was torn down, two granite supports remained. RIDOT proposed building a spartan foot-bridge on top, to the tune of $3 million. By 2019, that idea 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. But fiscal wisdom aside, there’s one thing most visitors can agree on: inFORM Studio designed an architectural masterpiece, and if you like walkable thoroughfares at all, 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. When Providence held a design competition in 2010, a consulting engineer alerted inFORM staff to the project.

“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 seem 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 width 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.

“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.”