From fallen tree trunks over streams, to vines or twisted fiber cables over gorges, and stone slabs over rushing watercourses, man has built bridges from many materials. Some have been an insult to the landscape, but from ancient times, the impulse to create beauty and harmony has been evident in the builders’ work.
We could do just as well with the Central Street bridge across the North Shore Channel. The requisite elements of landscape are in process of improvement.
All we need is a decent design for an urban bridge in a residential area.
Bridges are our longest-lived monuments. The new bridge at Central Street, it is said, “will be planned for 100 years.” It should not be treated as just another cookie-cutter steel-and-concrete bridge of the least appealing type.
Why doesn’t the Engineering Department’s outside consultant agree? Why have they not given Evanston’s elected representatives a chance to look at aesthetic alternatives and to decide for themselves what kind of bridge design will be “good enough” for us?
The original 1908 bridges constructed across the North Shore Channel by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District had a picturesque quality.
The bridges at Central and Lincoln Streets in Evanston were reconstructed in the 1970s and are standard highway-style “continuous beam bridges” They are not so pleasant to live with. Nor is the new 2013 effort at Simpson and Bridge Streets, which has been called “prison” architecture.
The City Council and the citizens it represents deserve to see better alternatives.
Bridges are massively expensive structures, built with public funds by an army of engineers, consultants, bureaucrats, contractors and suppliers, whose operations are mostly hidden from the public eye.
After all, who else knows how to build a bridge? It’s time we all did.
In rebuilding the Central and Lincoln Street bridges in the heart of the Canal Shores Golf Course and greenway, Evanston has a golden opportunity to leave simple and distinguished monuments which will stand long after we are gone.
Positive lessons can be learned at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and in many other locales where bridges, overpasses, and their approaches have received serious architectural consideration. And our expressway overpasses demonstrate ugly in abundance.
We should approach the design of the Central Street and the Lincoln Street bridge replacements with the focus on what they should do for us, both in function and in appearance.
Small elements that are important at the scale of a building can be equally important in a bridge used by pedestrians and bicyclists, or set in a backdrop of natural greenway and golf course, as at Canal Shores. Architects and other visual design professionals thus are more important in the design of urban bridges than they are in the design of highway bridges that are not pedestrian ways and which are not experienced with as much intimacy and permanence.
Indeed, the Central Street Bridge stands in the immediate front yard of many residences at Bryant and Central streets. It also is at the heart of the Clubhouse Zone of the Canal Shores Golf course and will be its single most prominent architectural feature.
The bridge also stands prominently at the gateway to Evanston Hospital and Northwestern University to the east and Ryan Field and the residential and business properties to the west, and is crossed by thousands of pedestrians, golfers and visitors annually.
At present the bridge does not speak well for Evanston or any of its institutions, nor will its proposed replacement.
The challenge to build more aesthetically pleasing urban bridges is often said to be one of cost. There actually are several more important obstacles: the attitudes of those who control the decisions; outdated design practices that have been “standard” for more than 50 years; an the cost of designing and building something other than a standard cookie-cutter design, when no one is trying to do better.
In fact, challenging and innovative bridges can turn out to be less expensive to build, for the simple reason that the details of their design receive more careful attention. But they can be built only by professionals with the right attitude, the ability to work beyond the limits of yesterday’s “standard practice,” and who utilize aesthetic as well as engineering principles in their approach.
Meanwhile, the essential prerequisite to competent bridge design is to choose responsible professionals who are open to those considerations, and willing to embrace changes in standard practice.
In rebuilding the Central and Lincoln Street bridges in the heart of the Canal Shores Golf Course and greenway, we have a golden opportunity to leave simple and distinguished monuments that will stand long after we are gone.
Mr. Miller, a retired attorney, is the leader of the Working Group for Better Bridges in Evanston. He is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois.