Where a major highway once crossed a river in downtown Providence, Rhode Island, there’s now a pedestrian bridge that doubles as park space. The project reuses old infrastructure: When the city learned that it would cost millions to remove the massive piers that supported the highway in the water, it decided to leave them in place and build the pedestrian bridge instead.
The project is part of a long-term effort to transform the Fox Point neighborhood, which had been cut off from the rest of the city when the highway was built. The city started talking to the state transportation agency in the 1990s about relocating the road. More than a decade later, the federal government transferred the land to the state, the state transferred the land to a redevelopment commission, and the highway started to come down. “When they were finished, it left a swath of land and opened the opportunity to have the city reconnect with the waterfront,” says Cory Lavigne, a principal at Inform Studio, the architecture firm that designed the bridge along with the engineering firm Buro Happold.
The bridge, which was completed last year, connects downtown Providence with new waterfront parks and a new innovation district—all built on land that was uncovered when the highway was removed—and makes it easier to cross the river without driving. But it’s also intended as a place to spend time. “The biggest part of it was to conceive of a public space that was a destination, not just connectivity,” says Michael Guthrie, founding design principal at Inform Studio. A terraced garden connects upper and lower decks, with benches for sitting, a sundeck near the water, and room for people to work, host small events, or look at the city view.
It’s one example of a growing number of ways that cities are replacing urban highways, which were built in the middle of the 20th century to try to improve transportation, but ended up cutting off neighborhoods, increasing noise and pollution, and lowering property values. In Detroit, a highway that displaced a predominantly Black community in the 1950s will be torn down and replaced with a boulevard. In Seattle, a highway came down to make way for a surface-level road and new waterfront open space. In Albany, New York, a highway on-ramp recently became a pedestrian bridge. In downtown New Haven, Connecticut, a highway is being replaced with a boulevard that prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists. A few years ago in Paris, a highway next to the Seine River became a park.
The changes, unsurprisingly, have economic benefits. In Milwaukee, removing an urban freeway and rebuilding the local street grid cost $25 million, but uncovered 24 acres of prime real estate and led to $1 billion in new investments. In Providence, the architects say that the bridge got more attention for its cost—$21.9 million—than its value in helping reconnect the area and draw visitors. As new housing and commercial research space is built in the neighborhood, the architects estimate that the project will pay for itself in new taxes over about five or six years.
“I think a lot of cities have the difficulty of, ‘Well, it would be great to have these spaces, but how do we economically afford to do this?'” says Guthrie. “So being able to do feasibility studies using this type of thing as a precedent and then forecast is really helpful for them being able to find ways to fund it. What we’ve seen is it not only is incredibly transformational from the public space side, but even from the economic development side.”