When is a bridge more than just a connection? While some of the world’s most famous bridges serve as architectural wonders to be visited specifically, photographed and uploaded to instagram, others stand as reminders of bygone eras and defunct modes of transport. Others yet, and increasingly so, act as destinations in their own right; infrastructure that doesn’t just facilitate movement, but human interaction, commerce and entertainment is becoming more and more a city priority as the benefits of placemaking and accessible public space begin to bubble on stakeholders’ agendas.
This is not a new concept, of course, with streets functioning as places for as long as there have been cities – marketplaces, rail and bus stations and arts spaces have historically transformed their streets and the streets around them into destinations we visit with intrigue, not always necessity. Today, in the world’s most vibrant cities, they are tourist hotspot and cool-kid magnets – New York’s Bleeker Street, Paris’ Champs- Élysées, London’s St. Christopher’s Place and Tokyo’s Takeshita Street are just a few examples, while most cities and neighbourhoods across the world have their own. The Project for Public Space’s campaign for Streets as Places identifies the need for at least 10 activities or points of interest on any given street for it to be deemed a destination, arguing that if placemaking efforts were concentrated on bridges, cities could open up miles and miles of public space. With that in mind, we take a look at some of the most intriguing bridge destinations:
Ponte Vecchio, Florence
No literature on bridges as places can ignore one of the earliest and foremost such structures that was built with this sense of destination in mind. Having been built, swept away and rebuilt twice before its current manifestation, the historic Ponte Vecchio is the only Florentine bridge to be spared by Hitler himself when Germany retreated from the city in 1944. Shops have always flanked each side of the pedestrian bridge, traditionally serving the dietary needs of locals on each end with fishmongers and butchers populating most outlets. However, Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medic soon deemed the stench of these stores as unfitting for the architectural marvel and, looking to restore the bridge’s prestige, it has since become one of the most coveted jewellery districts in Italy.
Camden Lock, London
While the area is named after the lock (a device used for lowering and raising boats) and not the bridge which crosses over the Regent’s Canal, Camden Lock and the notorious Camden Lock Market are meeting points for London’s alternative sub-cultures and hip trends alike. From Punk Rock to Rasta Reggae and gluten-free and paleo, all tastes (whether musical, aesthetic or literal) are catered for in this vibrant, edgy district of the capital – as long as they’re not mainstream. Operating as a retail and arts hub since the 70s, Camden Lock has sprawled in every direction and today market stalls, food vendors and boutique stores are on the bridge, under it, around it and even underground, thanks to the area’s unique infrastructure and canals. With buskers and bars providing the soundtrack to the area, it remains a bohemian, artist’s getaway despite commercialization in recent years.
Qasr El Nil Bridge, Cairo
Part of Khedive Ismail’s urban development plan to Europe-ize Cairo, this iconic bridge links two historically important districts of the city – upscale, leafy Zamalek where the Cairo Opera House stands and downtown Cairo where the city’s economic, artistic and intellectual capital calls home. One of the very first bridges to cross the Nile, the structure which begins and ends with gigantic lion statues – a fixture in most photos of Cairo – offers panoramic views of the river on both sides, and is a popular, free outdoor destination for the country’s youth, young couples and the occasional fishing hobbyist. Informal sidewalk cafes pop up at night, with vendors offering the rental of plastic chairs for visitors to relax, alongside teas, coffees and snacks, while popcorn and cotton candy sellers walk up and down. In 2011, during Egypt’s revolution, the bridge was the scene of one of the most dramatic and remembered urban battles between protestors and the police, and since then the government has made some cosmetic upgrades to the sidewalks and lampposts that flank each side.
Galata Bridge, Istanbul
Currently in its fifth incarnation, the Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn connecting the administrative center of Istanbul with the district of Galata and, to the untrained eye, appears very much like a traditional, transport-driven structure bar a spattering of fishermen. However, it is on the purpose-built lower level of the bridge where visitors from across the capital and beyond congregate for drinks on the Bosphorus, the freshest seafood in Istanbul and, naturally, the best Turkish coffee in the world. The Galata district is famous for being the heart of the capital’s arts and culture scene, with a slew of galleries and recurring roles in Turkish literature, while the other side of the bridge is home to the city’s finance and trade industries – the two communities, however, both head to the bridge to blow off steam and snap selfies with the Sultanahmet Mosque standing grandly in the background.
Siosepol Bridge, Isfahan
Built in 1602 to facilitate crossing Iran’s Zayande River, Siosepol, or the Bridge of 33 Arches, is the foremost example of Safavid architecture still standing today. The double decker bridge has always purpose-built for pedestrians, evidenced by its high walls protecting walkers from wind and falls, and long-gone murals painted on the inside. Today, the Siosepol is visited by tourists and locals alike thanks to the popular and sprawling tea house that occupies a dried up bank. Families and couples can be seen strolling up and down the 33 arches, while street musicians serenade them in a place primed for perfect acoustics, thanks to the historic stone architecture. While environmental changes and human behaviours have devastated the river’s flow, there is perhaps more opportunity now for leisure and recreational outlets to be developed on the dry banks.
Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge, Sanjiang
An architectural wonder built without a single nail or screw, the Chengyang Bridge lives up to its name – a covered walkway that keeps pedestrians out of harsh weather conditions. Built in 1912, visitors to the area understandably mistake the structure for a temple or city hall on the river thanks to its three floors, five pavilions and 19 verandas, all seemingly rising out of the rice paddies and decorated with intricate wood carvings. As an important connector between two vibrant Dong towns, locals can be seen going about their business – whatever the weather – up and down the wood and stone structure, while tourists are privy to all sorts of traditional dances and songs and a history of the area for a 60-yen ticket. Street vendors and market stalls line the various structures that make up this bridge, selling snacks, refreshments and a hefty dose of Southern Chinese handicrafts.
Charles Bridge, Prague
In the picturesque hills of the Czech Republic lays a picturesque bridge over the picturesque Vlatva River, standing proud since its completion in 1402. As the first and only means of crossing the river until 1841, this iconic structure played an important role in cemented Prague as an essential trade route, connecting Eastern and Western Europe through solid land that was built to accommodate horses and carriages, before an electric tram ran across it, before the advent of the motor vehicle. The Charles Bridge has since been converted to a fully pedestrianized strip, adorned with statues and street lamps, complementing the views. As a tourist hot spot, for both Czech and foreign visitors, the bridge now plays host to souvenir kiosks, street artists and food vendors and, of course, lots or benches to enjoy the view from.
Brooklyn Bridge, New York
Probably the most famous bridge in contemporary pop culture (thanks in equal parts to Carrie Bradshaw, Bruce Wayne and Godzilla), the Brooklyn Bridge was always designed with the movement of people and goods in mind. Though it always had a pedestrian route and is home to one of the first ever dedicated cycling lanes in the Big Apple, the act of crossing the bridge as a recreational or tourist activity (as opposed to photographing it from the banks of Manhattan) is a fairly contemporary cultural quirk that developed hand in hand with the development of its eastern destination – in other words, crossing the bridge became cool when Brooklyn became cool and having attractions on both ends cemented the structure as a destination in its own right. Though there are no formal recreational or retail activities on the 1.85KM stretch, opportunistic street vendors can be found selling souvenirs and selfie sticks.