An augmented reality art space, a public bazaar, and urban woodlands are just a few of the imaginative ideas submitted for the Van Alen Institute and New York City Council’s competition to rethink the Brooklyn Bridge.
Since opening in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge has become an unmistakable icon of New York City that holds a special significance in our collective imagination. Though an architectural marvel, the bridge’s outdated infrastructure presents a very real problem of overcrowding. Long before the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of pedestrians and cyclists crammed onto the promenade every day, making the experience uncomfortable and often unsafe. (The deadly consequences of New York’s underdeveloped cycling paths are nothing new.) Covid-19 has also illustrated the urgency of designing public spaces and transit options with equity, health, and sustainability at their core.
In response to these conditions, the New York City Council and Van Alen Institute launched Reimagining Brooklyn Bridge, an international design competition that aims to modernize the bridge’s dated pathways and spark new conversations about infrastructure. According to the Institute, the proposals “must be responsive to the present moment and work to correct past injustices. They must foster equitable, accessible, and sustainable transportation options, create a healthy and safe environment for all New Yorkers, and opportunities for small businesses and vendors to flourish.” By centering climate action, social equity, and creative expression, they should also suggest feasible strategies that will improve well-being across all of New York’s public spaces.
In July, the competition announced six finalists—three professional submissions, three from students—that suggest compelling ideas for responsive short-term interventions and large-scale reconfigurations of the landmark. Selected by an interdisciplinary jury, the shortlisted proposals offer accessibility and environmental improvements that surprise, delight, and fascinate in equal measure. A submission by Bjarke Ingels Group and ARUP forgoes vehicles and on-ramps entirely in favor of pedestrians and cyclists; Aubrey Bader and Maggie Redding’s proposal transforms the walking path into a vibrant, meandering network of public spaces. Each finalist presented their proposal on July 23, and the two winners were announced yesterday, August 17, after a public vote and jury deliberations.
Taking home top honors in the professional category is Brooklyn Bridge Forest. Designed by a collective of architects, conservationists, designers, and engineers led by Scott Francisco of Pilot Projects Design Collective, the proposal expands the historic wooden walkway using FSC-certified wooden planks sustainably harvested from Guatemala’s Uaxactun community, which is actively safeguarding a 200,000-acre rainforest. A dedicated bike path and reclaimed traffic lanes triple the space for active and low-carbon transit, which has sharply increased now that fewer New Yorkers commute on the subway. Biodiverse “microforests,” situated at both ends of the bridge, will bring much-needed green spaces to nearby underserved communities.
“Brooklyn Bridge Forest seeks to build a new vision of sustainability and social equity—reimagining this beloved landmark as a way to connect New York City and its residents to forests and natural systems that sustain life for all,” said Scott Francisco, Brooklyn Bridge Forest team lead and founder of Pilot Projects Design Collective. “This is the right time for cities to lead on global change, starting with their own infrastructure. There’s no better place to start than the Brooklyn Bridge.”
In the non-professional category, Do Look Down by Shannon Hui, Kwans Kim, and Yujin Kim received the grand prize. Their proposal primarily features a glass surface, installed above the bridge’s girders, that creates a whimsical new pedestrian space brought to life through art installations and seasonal programming. (We hope translucent glass, which eliminates upskirt views of unsuspecting female pedestrians, is an option.) It also expands the lower roadway’s pathways to provide more space for vendors, such as the Brooklyn Flea Market, and street performers. LED displays and projection systems, powered by a kinetic paving system that draws energy from footsteps, will animate the glass with dynamic visuals and honor the city’s diverse cultures, histories, and identities.
Hui explains that Do Look Down initially focused on overcrowding, but soon became more socially driven as her team developed the concept. “This health crisis, in addition to its intersections with racial and queer injustice, has violently amplified the systemic inequities built into New York’s existing urban infrastructure, and for designers and developers to continue to operate within a vacuum would be to take advantage of a position of immense privilege.” She further describes the project as an opportunity to “imagine meaningful public spaces where people can feel seen and heard—and ultimately, belong.” Do Look Down will achieve this in part through a custom app, which uses augmented reality to create virtual artistic interventions, as well as light projections onto the bridge’s two towers.
“The winning ideas are a crucial first step to get New Yorkers thinking about how to adapt not only the bridge, but also our streets and public spaces for future generations,” says New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, “and stay true to our goal of creating an environmentally sensitive, bike-friendly city that prioritizes pedestrians over cars.” Though the ideas may still be a distant reality, each illustrates the creative and far-reaching potential of public space to accommodate the new normal, which always seems to be in a state of flux.