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OPINION

Walk this way — celebrating Boston’s pedestrian bridges

Today’s bridge design combines architecture, urban design, and urban planning, and establishes key connections throughout the city with style and grace.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Boston has been steadily transforming the public realm to accommodate greener modes of mobility. And there’s one unsung piece of infrastructure that is a crucial element in that effort: the pedestrian bridge.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Boston has been steadily transforming the public realm to accommodate greener modes of mobility. And there’s one unsung piece of infrastructure that is a crucial element in that effort: the pedestrian bridge.Anthony Flint

Emerging from months of lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, residents across the country are appreciating the utility of walking, biking, and scootering. Public transit is at reduced capacity, and the usual hassles remain for driving and parking a car. Happily, Boston has been steadily transforming the public realm to accommodate these greener modes of mobility. And there’s one unsung piece of infrastructure that is a crucial element in that effort: the pedestrian bridge.

We’re not talking about those clunky concrete-and-chain-link overpasses of the 1960s and ’70s. Today’s pedestrian bridge design is more holistic, combining architecture, urban design, and urban planning, and establishing key connections throughout the city with more style and grace.

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Each of the following signature spans started with a problem that needed to be solved — vaulting train tracks, for example — and in their execution had to meet extensive accessibility requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, while appearing cool all the while:

Northeastern University ISEC Pedestrian Bridge.
Northeastern University ISEC Pedestrian Bridge.Anthony Flint

Northeastern University ISEC Pedestrian Bridge, 2019

The 320-foot bridge, a collaboration of local design firm Payette and the engineering powerhouse Arup, is the most recent addition to the Boston landscape. Passing over five active MBTA and Amtrak rail lines as it links Northeastern’s Huntington Avenue campus and the northern reaches of Roxbury at Columbus Avenue, it flows from the site of the university’s new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex. The wide pathway, with a gentle curve and slope, is flanked by a series of asymmetric “weathering steel” parapets angling outward. The panels are spaced to allow narrow views to the city beyond while still adhering to the strict barrier requirements for any structure that crosses electrified rail lines. The specialty steel resists corrosion, obviating the need to disrupt rail service to repaint the bridge over its lifetime. It’s a generous curvilinear path, fully accessible, able to accommodate high traffic, and beautifully lit at night by LED threads that make the sides glow warmly. In short, it’s a $17 million transportation project that accommodates walkers and bikers with the same care and effort that to date has been lavished on infrastructure for cars.

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Frances “Fanny” Appleton Pedestrian Bridge.
Frances “Fanny” Appleton Pedestrian Bridge.Anthony Flint

Frances “Fanny” Appleton Pedestrian Bridge, 2018

The $12.5 million Frances Appleton Pedestrian Bridge — a steel arch span that links Beacon Hill and Mass. General Hospital at Charles Circle to the Esplanade — replaced a ’70s-era structure that was clunky and non ADA-compliant. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation was convinced to replace it during the $300 million renovation of the nearby Longfellow Bridge, and the new crossing subtly mirrors the underbelly arches of that historic span. Designed by Rosales + Partners in partnership with engineering firm STV, the ribbon-like structure consists of 550 feet of continuous girders supported by a tubular arch. With no center piers, it’s meant to appear to float over Storrow Drive. The bridge, named for the wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — who routinely crossed the Charles River from Cambridge to court his bride, who lived in Beacon Hill — is adorned with tasteful beads of white light in the evening, with the equally light-bathed Longfellow Bridge behind it. Fourteen feet wide, it is constantly in use by joggers, strollers, bicyclists, scooters — the whole wonderful moveable feast of urbanites getting out for physical activity along the Esplanade, one of Boston’s greatest assets.

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North Bank Pedestrian Bridge.
North Bank Pedestrian Bridge.Anthony Flint

North Bank Pedestrian Bridge, 2012

Linking Paul Revere Park in Charlestown to North Point Park in Cambridge, this 700-foot, $8 million crossing is arguably the pioneer in a new wave of pedestrian bridges around Boston. The state used 2009 stimulus funds to fulfill its obligation for non-vehicular infrastructure as a condition of the Big Dig. Pedestrian bridge designer David Greenwold and Julian Hakes threaded a muscular and undulating span through a harsh industrial wasteland between the Charles River Dam and base of the Charles River Basin at the Museum of Science. The bridge starts under the Zakim Bridge, rises up over Millers River, under the Leverett Connector, and over the MBTA tracks ending at North Station before landing just past the Boston Duck Boats launch area. At one scale, it connects two great new waterfront parks. But the connection is much bigger than that: access from Charlestown to the Charles River Bike Path, which extends 22 miles into Boston’s western suburbs. That’s an environmentally friendly commute right there — and it completes 19th-century landscape architect Charles Eliot’s vision of connecting Charles River parks to downtown Boston and Boston Harbor.

It’s an impressive trifecta, and there is more to be done. The South Bank pedestrian bridge and park project — also legally required to be built as a condition of the Big Dig — will connect the North End at the Charles River locks near Boston Garden, under the Zakim Bridge and across the North Station tracks, ultimately to the lovely Nashua Street Park. And on to the Esplanade. Also next up: the rehabilitation of the Old Northern Avenue Bridge, linking the Seaport and downtown. Boston has the opportunity to keep this vital aspect of city-building going strong.

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Anthony Flint, a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, writes about architecture and urban design. He can be reached at anthony.flint@lincolninst.edu.