Decades after the highway boom of the mid-20th century, municipalities are seeing some of the impacts of car-centric urban design: neighborhoods split by major roadways, communities without sidewalks, insufficient public space. Businesses and restaurants crammed into parking lots and strip malls, devoid of “curb appeal” and inaccessible to pedestrians. Pollution, congestion, traffic. Now, as many of these highways age, cities must choose to either maintain this infrastructure or invest in transforming urban areas into people-centric—not car-centric—spaces. Public space that embraces multimodal transportation, prioritizes the pedestrian, and is guided by placemaking principles can reconnect residents to their surroundings and spur economic growth.

Diagram of the Former I-195 bridge and its new relocation.

The Van Leesten Memorial Bridge (formerly the Providence Pedestrian Bridge) is a recent example of how old infrastructure was leveraged to link two sides of town, boosting redevelopment initiatives and resulting in new housing, local business, and commercial research space. When the I-195 highway was built in the 1950s, it cut the riverfront and several neighborhoods off from downtown Providence. In the early 2000s, once it was determined that the aged highway needed to be dismantled or repurposed, local groups saw this as an opportunity to overhaul that section of the river and city, which had become neglected and underutilized.

Aerial view of the former I-195 Bridge.

“The Michael Van Leesten Memorial Bridge has become the vibrant and welcoming public space that we dreamed it could be for so long,” said Providence City Planning Director Bonnie Nickerson. “The bridge not only stitches our city back together, it is a central meeting place where residents and visitors from all neighborhoods and walks of life come to be together. It is where city life unfolds with impromptu dance performances, picnics, marriage proposals, and family photo shoots. It has become an integral part of the fabric of our city, and means so much to so many.”

Bonnie Nickerson, City Planning Director
Department of Planning and Development
Executive Director, Providence Redevelopment Agency

The redevelopment initiative – led by the City of Providence, the I-195 Commission, and the Providence Foundation – used an inclusive community engagement process to assess needs and establish a vision for this major undertaking. They looked to the city’s future and saw the pedestrian bridge as a key component in drawing visitors to the new district. More than a conduit to get people from Point A to Point B, the bridge would encourage people to stay awhile. With plentiful benches, surrounding views, naturally occurring lanes for walkers, joggers, bikes, and strollers, native plantings, and a terrace for outdoor performances, the pedestrian bridge is a chance to connect people to place. So far it’s contributed to the reclamation of 40 acres of prime waterfront real estate.

At INFORM, we wanted to ensure that Providence’s goals were kept top of mind throughout the design process. We looked to some key placemaking principles as a guide, which meant making sure the bridge was:

  • Accessible to multiple, diverse modes of transportation.
  • Able to be used at different times of day or evening.
  • Integrated with its natural surroundings.
  • Conducive to socializing, and both large and intimate gatherings.
  • Visually attractive.
  • Functional in creating authentic connections between the park, local businesses, and residential areas.

With these principles and more in mind, our team jumped in knowing that good design, if done right, can lead to economic growth. The district as a whole has reaped $5 million annually in new property taxes and other payments on new developments within walking distance of the bridge: this breaks down to approximately $1.8 million from mixed use academic and commercial space, and approximately $3.2 million from 1,600 units of additional housing. By employing these principles, public infrastructure as an amenity has the potential to pay for itself within a decade.

New Van Leesten Memorial Bridge. Credit: Kroo Photography

Cities nationwide are repurposing rather than dismantling existing infrastructure for many reasons. The Van Leesten Memorial Bridge was part of a years-long initiative that took a good look at what was working and what wasn’t, in order to come up with viable solutions. The value that was created here was that the city now has something it didn’t before: a burgeoning innovation district that adds housing and jobs, provides fertile ground for new businesses, and links people to historic neighborhoods while being bridged—literally—by a public park. Environmentally centered city planning like this considers a return to simpler times when casual, in-person gatherings were the norm, drawing people out of their homes to engage with friends, neighbors, and local amenities. The economic gains since the bridge has opened and as the surrounding district evolves are expected to continue, reinforcing the idea that responsive design, in concert with comprehensive city planning efforts and engaged communities, can spur economic impact for years to come.

New Van Leesten Memorial Bridge Drone Footage. Credit: Kroo Photography.

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