Day #063: Bridges as Parks

Bridges often span the most interesting and beautiful parts of Richmond. Why are they so ugly and inaccessible to pedestrians and cyclists?

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Bridges as parks.
  • Difficulty: 1 to 5 — This vision spans from some planters to a one of a kind $30 million “bridge park.”

Every now and then an idea truly captures the imaginations of Richmond’s residents. In 2012, Ella L. Kelley and Mike Hughes (then president of the Martin Agency) championed a “bridge park” through a series of Op/Ed articles. Originally planned for the old Huguenot Bridge which was torn down, attention has since shifted to the remains of the Richmond/Petersburg Railroad Bridge.1

The Op/Eds and plans undoubtedly captured the imaginations of many different people in Richmond. Whether you agree or disagree with the project, the plan offers some worthy ideas.

The BridgePark would draw inspiration from the recently completed High Line in New York City, the Garden Bridge in London, and plans that are shaping up for a bridge park in Washington DC. With the Brown’s Island Dam Walk expected to be finished before Richmond 2015, the BridgePark would be more of a destination than an artery. Crossing 1,600 feet of river, it would be between 25 and 45 feet wide, sit at a higher elevation, and would cost up to $30 million. There have even been discussions of continuing the space much deeper into the city.

Since the original Op/Eds, Kelley and Hughes have both died. In their stead, Ted Elmore has taken over the role of president of the Richmond BridgePark Foundation. An engaging personality, his desire to sell anyone on the idea of the bridge is only exceeded by his desire to hear their input.

Elmore doesn’t see the bridge as a headline grabber. Instead he sees it as consistent with who we are as a city. Some recent projects in Richmond have been very opaque. The process of planning the BridgePark with the community is more important to Elmore than the finished project. Elmore is most convincing when he discusses how the bridge would engage a new space: lower elements of the bridge could wind closer to the water, higher elements could connect to the Manchester bridge while showcasing some of the best views and most desirable locations in the city.

Bridges engage some of the most interesting places in this city while also providing essential links from one place to another. They cross the beautiful James River, wind between buildings, and connect neighborhoods. So why can’t every bridge be a park?

The Manchester Bridge is 110 feet wide and can afford to forfeit a lane or two. The City recently installed buffered bike lanes on the MLK Bridge after a road diet and could mimic elements of parks while turning the concrete jungle into a place worthy of travel.2 I’d be willing to adopt a park, and it would add greenery to the city.

The the most powerful purpose of the BridgePark is forcing us to reconsider our preconceptions of bridges. Why are bridges so ugly?3 Despite its decaying condition, the old Huguenot Bridge’s art deco railings were at least moderately inspiring. Today, the remaining bridges are eyesores traversing the best scenery in Richmond.

The price tag is obviously a big concern. Elmore sees the funds coming from a combination of private donors, corporate donors, and the City. $30 million is a lot of money. For comparison, the new Huguenot Bridge cost $54.5 million.

Whether or not the BridgePark is in the near future for Richmond, plenty can be learned from Elmore and The Richmond BridgePark Foundation’s vision. In the meantime, it would worthwhile to learn and execute a few lessons from the vision of Ella L. Kelley and Mike Hughes.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.


Photo by: Wasabi Bob

  1. Built in 1838, the pillars have outlasted several fires. Engineers hired by the project say they are sturdy and estimate they will outlast the Manchester Bridge pillars. They just don’t build them like they used to. 
  2. This could be accomplished by adding planters to turn the buffered lanes into protected lanes. 
  3. The James River is fundamental to the story of Richmond and its most valuable asset. The value of aesthetics around it can not be overstated. 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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