Self-proclaimed, bridge nerd, Virginia Callen '23, spent her 3-week internship at the Civic Design Center considering an improved placemaking experience for the community surrounding the 1-40 pedestrian overpass between Napier and SoBro.
I am a bit of a bridge nerd. I understand that may sound strange coming from a high school student with no educational or professional experience in engineering or design, but I claim this title nonetheless. It was with this in mind that I was given the opportunity to intern at Civic Design Center for three weeks this past January. To add on to that, my host and her team members at the Design Center gifted me with a bridge project.
History and Background of the Bridge
Most Nashvillians have only seen the pedestrian bridge that connects the Napier and SoBro neighborhoods from the highway the bridge crosses, I-40. If you have, it is fair to say that there is not much to see.
We can guess that this bridge was built in the 1960s around the same time as I-40 was constructed in Nashville. Highway construction in the U.S. has a historical record of disrupting and destroying African American communities. The story here was no different. Academy Place was dead-ended by the interstate, severing its connection to Carroll Street and the public housing across from it. As a concession, a pedestrian bridge was built in a poor attempt to maintain connection across the new divide.
One part of Civic Design Center’s mission is to advocate for and uplift community members’ voices. Through my research, I learned the importance of involving the community in civic design because they are the people who will ultimately be using the space. In order to gain insight into the perspectives of the people living near the bridge, I set up interviews with different residents in Napier as well as Chestnut Hill.
These interviews were one of my favorite parts of this project. In Napier, I talked to high school and middle school students as well as a librarian who all shared their opinions and gave me feedback on my ideas. From them I learned that having destinations and activities at or near the bridge would encourage community use. With nothing to go to, the bridge would remain largely unused. The kids I talked to were very enthusiastic, suggesting ideas such as places to ride bikes and walk their dogs as well as a park-like space in which they could gather. I also talked to a representative from the neighborhood association in Chestnut-Hill who stressed the number of pedestrians in his neighborhood.
Through these interviews, I was able to get a better sense of how best I could design a bridge that would reflect and serve the communities surrounding it. I learned that for these community members, it was less about the bridge itself and more about the opportunities it could give access to.
Creating an Accessible Vision
When I created designs for the pedestrian bridge, I had to keep many things in mind: the limits of the space itself, the community’s desires for the project, and my research on placemaking. But one important aspect I had to remember was to get creative. I knew that my designs would serve as a conceptual long term vision for what the bridge could be. Rather than a strict plan we would enact, my designs would instead urge people to imagine a better future for the space.
To start, I had to visit the bridge. Taking pictures and videos as I went, I explored the area and experienced it as it was while also brainstorming what it could be.
One of my main challenges during the design process was finding a way to make the bridge ADA compliant. The only way to get onto the bridge is via a steep staircase on either side. Limited space on the Napier side made it difficult to simply extend a ramp from the top of the bridge to the ground.
So I got creative. I decided to extend the bridge across Carroll Street and create new access points on the other side of the street. In doing so, I would create space for both a ramp and a new staircase. Extending the bridge would also make it much more visible from the street thus reminding people it was there rather than letting it go unnoticed tucked away behind angled walls.
On the other side of the bridge, there is more room to extend a ramp from the existing edge of the bridge. In my designs, I created a structure that incorporates a ramp as well as stairsteps interspersed between the edges of the ramp. This provides increased accessibility to the bridge as well as adding visual interest that can uniquely separate the space from other places.
Wayfinding and Placemaking
Adding signage is key to promoting use of the bridge. Signs can advertise destinations made accessible by the bridge. Giving people a reason to cross (i.e. a place to go) will encourage biking and walking as a means of transportation in the neighborhood via the pedestrian bridge.
Academy Place has been blocked off by a set of metal barriers to keep cars out. This reserves the space for people and gives the opportunity to create a plaza in which people can gather. In this area, there is the potential to create a space the entire community can use to come together outside. Adding seating, plants, and art will make the space more inviting and interesting as unique elements can be added to reflect the identity of the communities who use the space.