Transforming Bridges Into Parks: A How-To Guide

When a new bridge opens in Washington, D.C., its old spans will go out of use. The District wants to convert the soon-to-be useless infrastructure into a public park. Here are some tips on how to do it successfully.

Rendering of parklands around the old 11th Street Bridge. D.C. Office of Planning

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This piece originally appeared on Greater Greater Washington.

When Washington, D.C.‘s new 11th Street Bridge opens, its old spans will become unnecessary transportation infrastructure. The D.C. Office of Planning is considering converting one of the old spans into a park, filled with recreation amenities such as rock climbing walls, zip lines and skate parks.

It’s an interesting idea, and definitely worth exploring, but it’s also going to be difficult to pull off successfully. If the city simply plops a couple of rock climbing walls on the old asphalt, the new park will be a failure.

The problem is that there is no built-in user base. The bridge is difficult to access from nearby neighborhoods, so it won’t likely get many casual walk-through users. Most of the nearby neighborhoods also aren’t very dense.

Instead, the park would rely on people who specifically go there as a destination. That means it will have to offer specific reasons for people to visit. If there aren’t enough reasons, the park will remain mostly empty. The bridge is also long, meaning there’s a lot of space to fill.

So the park will need an anchor, or several anchors. And it will need transportation facilities to accommodate users, since there won’t be enough walkers to populate it fully.

If the District wants to fill the long span of 11th Street Bridge with enough people to give it a lively and safe feeling, it will need to do more:

Program it heavily. The more stuff there is in the park, the more reason people will have to visit. So fill the thing up with activities. Attach a boat house, put in a mini golf course, whatever. Give people a reason to travel across the city and come to this place.

Make it mixed use. Putting large office or residential buildings on the bridge is probably not realistic, but there is no reason why it shouldn’t include some small shops and food stands. And for goodness sake, keep them open. That perpetually closed pavilion at Pershing Park isn’t doing anyone any favors.

Be inclusive. Provide space for food trucks, sidewalk vendors, street artists, performers, anybody. Let them in, and let them sell. This is actually one advantage this park has over nearby space in Anacostia Park: The National Park Service controls that, and prohibits any vending, but a city bridge-turned-park wouldn’t suffer under the same restrictions.

Don’t cheap out on landscaping. Nobody wants to visit a concrete expanse. Obviously the range of plantings available on a hard surface with no soil is somewhat limited, but go to the expense and trouble of doing as much as you can.

Provide transportation. People will need a means of getting to this park. There must be parking for cars and bikes (on-street is fine), bike sharing, and the streetcar should actually stop in the center of the bridge.

With enough planning and strong management, this idea could be a winner. Without, it will fail, and will ultimately be abandoned.

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Tags: washington dcbuilt environmentwalkabilityfood trucksadaptive reuse

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