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What are bridges for these days?

Millennium Bridge, London; Castleford footbridge; and Gateshead Millennium Bridge
Clockwise, from left: London, Castleford and Gateshead footbridges

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

No longer solely in the business of getting people from A to B across a waterway, bridges are now also about putting a place on the map and kick-starting wider investment.


Get bridge. Make bridge. Thrive.

Once upon a time bridges were all about getting people from one side of a river to the other.

Whether it was traders or workmen or retreating soldiers, bridges existed for a purely practical purpose. They might have been designed or built with great flair, using materials chosen to dazzle the observer, but they were, first and foremost, conceived because of man's inability to walk on water.

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But in the past few decades, not just in Britain but also elsewhere in Europe, the bridge has started to be used as something more than a mere means of conveying traffic across water.

In dilapidated areas they are being used as emblems; glistening standards for major urban redevelopment projects.

The residents of Castleford, as part of a project chronicled by Channel 4, have got themselves a slinky new S-shaped footbridge across the fast-flowing River Aire.

Castleford is a former mining town, a former mill town, with some deprived areas. But it is also close to Leeds and close to the motorway and there is a belief that it can be economically successful again.

Gateshead example

A regeneration programme, part-inspired by Channel 4 and overseen by residents acting as "champions" for various projects, has a bridge at its heart.

YOUR COMMENTS
Two men walk across the Clifton Suspension Bridge
The Clifton Suspension Bridge, built in the mid-19th Century, serves little practical purpose, but is Bristol's most recognisable landmark
David, Bristol

"Anybody who wants to come into a place like Castleford has to be attracted by the potential," says Alison Drake, one of the champions.

"To not have access to the river or the views was a waste. The bridge has brought all that into play. You need to make a bold statement - the bridge makes that bold statement."

The centre of Castleford was previously accessible by a cramped road bridge and probably did need another way for pedestrians to get over the foaming and flood-prone Aire.

But the town can still be seen to have followed the example of Gateshead, which, a few years ago, built a bridge that many could have argued it didn't really need.

The Tyne is replete with bridges on the narrow stretch where the centre of Gateshead meets the centre of Newcastle. Prior to the opening of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, it was easy to walk across from Newcastle into Gateshead.

But that did not stop the town fathers putting their weight behind a multimillion pound bridge that would really put Gateshead on the map.

Flash of confidence

"It was seen as part of a package of regeneration, it wasn't seen entirely as a transport project," says David Leeder, head of the council's Major Initiatives Team.

Runners pass the Gateshead bridge
Backdrop to the Great North Run

And since the bridge - better known as the Blinking Eye Bridge - was plonked down onto the Tyneside skyline at the tail end of 2000 by the giant floating crane Asian Hercules II, it has made its mark in two respects.

It is a Millennium project that was not greeted with derision in the press and it is a structure that has won numerous awards. It cost over 20m, half of it from the Millennium Commission, but the council feels it was money well spent.

Since the bridge opened in 2001, Gateshead has also seen half a dozen other big projects come to fruition, most notably the Sage music centre and the Baltic Art Centre. And with perhaps even more direct consequences for the citizens of Tyneside, the Baltic Business Quarter seems to be a concrete result of the redevelopment that the bridge led.

Somehow, building a flashy, expensive and not immediately necessary bridge led to a re-evaluation of an area that had been depressed for a long time. As one newspaper described the changes heralded by the bridge: "Geordie pride is being restored."

Millennium Bridge, London
Best known as the "wobbly bridge"

"It is one [view] of the area that people photograph," says Mr Leeder. "The image of the bridge is a very striking image. It is very widely used on publicity photographs, and on all sorts of tourist mementoes. The bridge is integral. It is such a unique design. It doesn't look like any other bridge."

At the other end of the spectrum is the Millennium Bridge in London, which links St Paul's and Southwark, and opened in June 2000.

The bridge should have been a triumph to complement the recently opened Tate Modern, but an excessive vibration led to a temporary closure. Its designers had wanted it to be nicknamed the "blade of light" but posterity will call it the "wobbly bridge".

Bridging communities

Castleford wants a bit of the Gateshead experience to guarantee its future, but there are places in Europe where there's even more at stake.

The Stari Most connects Bosniak and Croatian communities in Bosnia
To reconstruct the [Stari Most] bridge, the idea was to reconstruct our connections
Esad Humo

In Mostar in Bosnia, the Stari Most has stood imperiously over the Neretva for more than four centuries until it was deliberately blown up during the war in Bosnia in 1993. A Unesco-led project saw millions spent on restoring the bridge, not just to attract tourists or provide another crossing, but also to connect Bosniak and Croatian communities.

Esad Humo worked on the bridge project and is now the minister for economics in the local government.

"The bridge was a landmark of this area and this ancient bridge was very well-known all around the world. Destroying a bridge was a signal of the destroying of our connections and our past. To reconstruct the bridge, the idea was to reconstruct our connections."

And that is perhaps the greatest reason to build a bridge.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Being involved in a number of the current bridge schemes currently under consideration in England and Scotland, the article has ever so slightly missed the critical point. In order for such schemes to go ahead, government and European funding is essential. In order to secure that funding, an incredibly complex "value for money" calculation is performed that takes into account all the benefits a structure can bring. This essentially rates the scheme in the pecking order for funding. Therefore it's no accident that the majority of these schemes bring major redevelopments to specific areas as these are very positive factors in these calculations. The Mersey Gateway bridge, for example, has serious proposals for the vast majority of Halton being considered, which would make the area a leader in terms of regeneration within the North West. It's all very exciting.
Dave, Manchester

Motorcycling across the Millau Viaduct in France this May was a tremendous experience - now there's a SERIOUS bridge. A marvel of man's engineering achievements.
Rob Davis, Telford, Shropshire

My home village of Bushmills has had a small new footbridge across the River Bush, paid for to celebrate 400 years of the distillery. It was actually done very well and although it's only a village of 1,500 or so people, it's made the whole riverside much more attractive. It goes to show that even small bridges in small communities can make a difference.
Andrew McKendry, Bushmills, County Antrim, Northern Ireland

As a structures engineer specialising in bridges, I find that this new trend can be really annoying. I know how to design functional, lightweight, streamlined bridges that are elegant in design as well as function because there's nothing unnecessary about them. But these days nobody wants that: they want a "notable architectural feature", so they hire an architect and leave me to deal with his totally unpractical ideas. And then they complain about the cost.
Jess, Oxford, UK

Here in West Switzerland, when they built the last past of the N5 motorway (Biel to Solothurn - after our 30-year wait) they added special grassed bridges with little bushes and wild plants - for the use of animals only (too narrow for humans). Since this 20-mile long section of the N5 opened nearly 10 years ago I have only ever seen one dead animal lying next to the road. The deer, foxes, badgers, rabbits etc seem to have learned that the bridges are the way across.
Helvetica, Near Lyss, Switzerland

What about the Clyde Arc (squinty bridge) in Glasgow linking Kinning Park & Finneston near the city centre? The BBC & STV both moved their entire offices (and in STV's case their studio) to the South Side right beside this bridge. Part of the condition of agreeing to move there was that a bridge with four lanes was built to facilitate easy transport of staff & equipment between the new sites and their old studios in the north. As a result it's a real boon for cyclists like myself travelling to the city centre and has helped regenerate large unused areas of land on both sides of the river.
Terence Jones, Glasgow, Scotland

At last we are getting back to the good days of aesthetics in our public projects. The viaduct at Millau is a vision of beauty. Take a look at any French bridge and see how it should be done. We are now making the UK even better by building bridges and other buildings of beauty where we have to build.
Pete Cleverley, Rushden, England

Landmark bridges have been designed and built for hundreds of years. London Bridge (several incarnations), Tower Bridge, Sydney Harbour, Golden Gate, Lions Gate, to name but a few. Even the Stari Most, cited in the article. The difference recently has been advances in computer modelling and materials science that have enabled engineers to be more adventurous in the form of the bridge. Just as architects have become more adventurous in building design.
Mark Wigmore, Redhill

Mark, architects do not design bridges. The media resistance to attributing bridge design to engineers contributes to the public's misconception. For example, Norman Foster could not have designed Millau; he does not have the structural ability. He may have smoothed the line but the overall structural form was a natural consequence of engineers pushing the art of the possible to the limit. This country needs engineers, and I don't mean those worthy guys who unblock drains or fix washing machines. Many sixth formers are completely unaware of the fantastic careers available in engineering; and I partly blame the media for misrepresenting the role and status of engineers.
Tommy, Cardiff

From a different view point, there is an engineering company in Stockport that has designed, built and can lay a 40m long and 4m wide bridge in just over one hour that can take vehicle weights of 100 tons. Pretty useful if you are cut off in the floods or want to open up an area and need a temporary, but proper, bridge.
Max Houghton, Stockport, UK

Have you seen Jerusalem's new Bridge of Strings? Well worth a close look.
Tony, Jerusalem

The Millennium bridge in Lancaster is a great example of enabling people to access parts of town easily - and a beautiful piece of architecture in what was a very run-down part of the city but is now revitalised by regeneration. It is in constant use and provides great views of the city and river. Brilliant.
Lizzi, Cornwall

"Once upon a time bridges were all about getting people from one side of a river to the other." Are you kidding? It's always been this way. Just how many British towns and cities are founded about an ancient river crossing? London, Oxford, just to name two. The clue's in the names: xxx-ford, yyy-bridge litter our maps. Add in zzz-mouth for every port or harbour town, and you have half the country.
Andrew Roberts, Manchester, UK

Over the sea to Skye - by a bridge that replaced an iconic ferry. A tough act to follow but the bridge is beautifully designed and makes an impressive view on the approach to Skye with the Cuillin mountains as a backdrop.
Peter, Portree

Does anyone else see the irony of CastleFORD now being famous for having a bridge?
Paul Brooks, London & Castleford

A place is in pretty dire straits if a bridge "restores your pride". It's the equivalent of buying a new pair of shoes to cover for the fact you've lost your job. The Bosnia bridge rebuilding served an entirely different purpose. It had stood for hundreds of years and was about the only thing two groups who, literally, wanted to wipe each other out, had in common. As you don't mention, the two communities still hardly mix. But it makes a pretty picture. Thinking that a shiny footbridge is going to turn an area into a boomtown is a sad comment on what 10 years of home makeover shows have done for UK culture. The wrapping paper is seen as more important than substance. An economic recession will show how empty these televisual indulgences are. If you want a decent income, don't get a bridge, get some A-Levels.
Des, London

Des, these projects to improve infrastructure are among the few ways in which the rest of the country can redress the fundamental imbalances in this country. Unfortunately the North-East has had more than its fair share of job losses due to industrial restructuring, it seems a bit churlish to carp about these good projects from the affluent end of the country. What's your plan, have us all move to your town?
Dave, The North

Surely Bideford must get a mention? A 13th Century bridge with different-sized arches based upon the wealth of the individual patrons.
Jon, York

Do you really think the ONLY reason the Romans built their bridges was to make crossing the river easier? Of course it wasn't, it was a stamp of Roman might and engineering, showing the natives that they where a force to be reckoned with and this was a place of importance. Bridges are a visible structure that impacts the lives of those around them, they make life easier and if the bridge is good it also enhances the location. The Blinking Eye here in Newcastle is a great example of a good bridge, it adds value.
Andy, Newcastle

I think the Rolling Bridge in the Paddington Basin over the Grand Union is absolutely fantastic, one of my favourite pieces of functional design ever.
Tim, London, UK

Alas, the rolling bridge in Paddington Basin has been removed, seemingly because it stopped working a few months ago. However, it did prove to be the only attraction to snap-happy tourists in an otherwise bland glass-and-steel development
Tom, London

The "wobbly" bridge is often derided, but as a frequent visitor to that part of London, it has had a very positive impact and is much more than a mere physical connection. Done properly, bridges can transform the atmosphere of an area for the better.
Phil, Watford, UK

If only it were as simple as just building a bridge to spark urban regeneration. What happened to Hull after the construction of the Humber Bridge? Answer: nothing, Hull remains as deprived as ever. Yet another construction white elephant blotting the British copybook. They haven't even finished paying off the debt after 27 years of tolls, so it's not even significant as a piece of transport infrastructure.
David Kaye, Dartford, Kent, UK

Building bridges for symbolic reasons is not entirely recent. For example, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, built in the mid-19th Century, serves little practical purpose, but is Bristol's most recognisable landmark.
David, Bristol, UK

Wrong, David in Bristol. The Clifton Suspension Bridge is exceptionally useful - I use it twice a week. It's the easiest way to get into Somerset from north Bristol without trudging through the city centre.
Neil Harrison, Bristol, UK

I'm a big fan of the railway bridge over the M25 near the M3 junction and the footbridge through the gorge in Kent - also on the M25.
David Grocott, Colchester

Nice article, but it suggests that bridges are doing something that they never did - like the Gugenheim in Bilbao. Rubbish. I live in Edenbridge. You might not be surprised to learn that the town was named after the bridge over the Eden that runs through it. The first settlements on the site were established by the Romans because of the bridge. If it were not for the bridge, Edenbridge would not exist. Bridges generating prosperity is not a new phenomenon.
Andrew, Edenbridge

I live in Edenbridge too and I always feel that it is a shame that more isn't made out of the bridge over the river Eden, after all it set the origins of our little country town. You barely know that you are going over it so it's purpose is only getting from A to B (its original purpose I guess).
Laura, Edenbridge, Kent

You only have to look at Tower Bridge, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge to see how these bridges are iconic symbols of their cities.
Tim Robertson, London

I'm sure the thought of building a bridge for symbolic reasons will delight the residents of Halton who are STILL waiting for the go-ahead for the New Mersey Crossing between Runcorn and Widnes. It might be a symbol of regeneration, but right now, we could do with the fringe benefits in easing the daily grind on a very important strategic road corridor for the North West. Still, by the time it finally gets the green light, it will probably cost 1/2 an Olympics.
Peter Schofield, Runcorn, Cheshire


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