Bridges can improve communities in ways other than providing better transport links. But if projects are to deliver wider social benefits, engineers will need to take a people-focused approach to planning and design, writes Brian Duguid.
When the new bridge at Pooley Bridge in the north of England was officially opened, the first ‘users’ to cross it were a flock of sheep. It was a traditional touch that symbolised how the local people’s daily life has always been dependent on the crossing that gave its name to their community.
While working on the concept design to replace the original 250-year-old stone bridge, swept away by flooding in a storm, our project team came to appreciate how it provided more than vital connectivity – it was the keystone of the area and the residents were emotionally attached to it. This relationship between people and infrastructure informed the final design for a modern, resilient bridge in keeping with the community’s sense of identity.
The Pooley Bridge team achieved this by doing more than finding the optimum technical solution, looking beyond the nuts and bolts of engineering. We all know what a bridge is: a structure carrying a road, railway, path or utilities across an obstacle or gap. But what is it really for?
This is the key question we as engineers should ask ourselves if we want to design and build bridges and related infrastructure that bring wider social and environmental benefits to communities.
Improving lives and livelihoods
If we think of a bridge, not as a structure or system, but as a service, we will start to develop ideas to improve the lives and livelihoods of people.
A bridge often provides a quicker, easier way to travel from A to B. This is clearly a good thing if it means people get better access to education and employment. Improved transport connections are routes to prosperity for areas of deprivation, creating economic corridors and helping to rebalance economic growth.
Bridges can also help make integrated transport networks more sustainable and at the same time improve public health and wellbeing. Pedestrian and cycle bridges – sometimes referred to now as ‘active travel’ bridges – encourage people of all ages to walk or cycle to destinations and generally get out and about more on foot and on their bikes.
We can do more for communities than improving connectivity and promoting active travel, but we must look around for opportunities.
The first place to look is above, below and around the bridge – quite literally, we have to think laterally. If the need for a new bridge has been identified, can we use the opportunity to regenerate the surrounding land or create new public spaces – with seating areas and perhaps a café or public artworks – that enhance the quality of the public realm, or green spaces that improve the natural environment?
Through careful design and use of lighting, even spaces directly underneath bridges can be safe, open and inviting instead of dark places that might encourage antisocial behaviour.
Next, we should look outwards. Being elevated, bridges make good viewing platforms. Maybe you will be able to see things you couldn’t before, encouraging people to pause and appreciate the space they are in and interact with the environment by enjoying new perspectives of it. Economic appraisal of bridges often focuses on the benefits of crossing an obstacle more quickly – how can we start to value the ‘slow’ crossings as well?
We will only start to develop ideas to improve the lives and livelihoods of people if we think of a bridge, not as a structure or system, but as a service.
Lastly, we should look at the view of the bridge itself to consider sightlines and how it frames the space and sits within the landscape. Bridges are landmarks that define the identity of towns and cities, and a source of civic pride for the people who live there. So, it’s important that bridges are not just functional but also elegant, pleasing to look at and welcoming.
For Harlech Castle in Wales, we designed a footbridge to improve visitor access to this UNESCO World Heritage site without disturbance to archaeologically sensitive areas. The structure, which allows visitors to enter the castle through the original drawbridge entrance for the first time in more than 600 years, sits low in the landscape, not just minimising interference with the views of the Snowdonia mountains but creating a whole new vista for anyone who stops on the bridge to look around.
Consultation and engagement
Our clients are increasingly aware of the need for infrastructure to be inclusive and they are paying closer attention to the views of local communities as well as customers and end-users.
But projects will fail to deliver positive social outcomes if they are only an afterthought. It is only by engaging with residents and stakeholders – from the outset, and in a meaningful way – that we can align designs with their needs and aspirations.
At Pooley Bridge, we carefully consulted the residents and their views were integral to the design process for the replacement crossing, the UK’s first stainless steel road bridge. There was open dialogue about the technical and financial constraints and the different options.
By empowering the community and responding to their concerns and priorities, we were able to develop a consensus for a design both inclusive and innovative. To commemorate its opening, residents and businesses were able to sponsor pavers forming the bridge’s walkway, increasing the sense of local ownership of it. The money raised will be reinvested in community projects.
Cost versus value
Will bridge projects that seek to be socially transformative cost more than those that focus purely on building the bridge? Not necessarily.
There is now greater importance placed on value for money within the infrastructure sector, and quite rightly so. But value for money doesn’t mean lowest cost. If we can determine the value that a bridge will bring to the people who will use it or live near it, we can look at affordability in a different light.
Many of these benefits are hard to measure in conventional economic analysis, but new tools are being developed – with Mott MacDonald in the vanguard – which will enable us to identify, capture and evaluate wider social outcomes. We can use these tools to articulate and defend the case for investing in more ambitious project goals. It is easier to fund more visionary projects where the social outcomes can be monitored and benchmarked.
It brings us back to the question of what bridges are for: to serve society, improve communities and make a positive difference to people’s lives.
This, the ultimate purpose of all civil infrastructure, should serve to remind us to consider social outcomes in everything we do.