Public spaces occupy multiple impressions in our collective consciousness: be it a park, a garden, or perhaps an open-air square. But when I see the foot-over-bridges (FOBs) mushrooming all over India, I feel how easily we have ignored this most visible space that could have been humanely and coherently linked. We need to consider each foot over bridge in its wider urban context, as both a movement channel forming part of the road network (i.e. a Link) and as a place in its own right.
It is unfortunate that in this era of rapidly developing urban-scape, the burden of approval of these FOBs falls on those who want to simply economize by using modular steel structures in the old-fashioned way, thereby letting this urban space in the city skyline get lost in sheer functionality, and without a thought to its aesthetic appeal and potential as a meaningful public space.
Imagine walking on such a steel foot over-bridge. The fast- moving traffic below is what one happens to see when they look down through the steel railings, and towards the sky, a vast sense of nothingness!!! This ‘nothingness’ amidst the cacophony of horns and speeding traffic is surely not an uplifting experience. We, who all are already so weighed down by the daily grind of life will surely be forced to just walk through this type of FOB without even acknowledging its very presence and perhaps thinking “Oh my god, it’s another rushed day and I just want to get it through.”
Is this what a city gives to its users?
Bridges are built to connect and bring people together. Should we not retrieve FOB as its definition implies?
Such a possibility is there if allow our minds to look at FOBs as spaces that can be functionally appealing and emotionally connecting us as well. Imagine a FOB that has small sculptures joined with chain links to form an interesting railing and as the FOB extends its network in different directions, well lit signage, benches, coffee spots and green plants is all what the eye can spot on. Graffiti and murals on the roof to be pleasing breaks as one looks up to the vastness of the sky, and the whole thing lighted up with attractive lightning. In such a setting won’t the mundane activities of the day be suddenly forgotten? Cut-outs & cafes where people can safely transit, and mingle. Won’t one enjoy the time spent here and walk through the bridge feeling refreshed?
Such a sensational foot over bridge, with its vibrancy and atmosphere, would not only be a delight to the user but also give a cinematic experience to the beholder, the motorist passing below the FOB. An FOB, thus conceptualized, can elicit imaginative responses, if we, as architects, make an attempt to retrieve and reclaim this lost public space.
This brings us together to understand that a bridge should be a sensory experience connecting us at a different level, literally. And it is my heartfelt request that we should address the lost definition that historical bridges from time immemorial have established, and which most urban cities around the world are trying to achieve.
A city I recall for having the best network of pedestrian walkways is Hong Kong. Despite the city’s fair share of humidity and noise levels from the traffic below, the walkways spanning across the many high rise buildings function as an easy and enjoyable bridge to traverse on foot. In fact, all the public and private spaces in Hong Kong are connected through a well-planned network of walkways, bridges and covered pathways. Even roads, railways and ferries are connected by this very network. What more could a city walker ask for?
I experienced here that the FOBs could be separated into private and public bridges. Public bridges were used by tourists and residents, while the private bridges led specifically to one or multiple households, business entrances, offices and shopping malls.
The bye laws of the city allow buildings to be connected through bridges with air conditioned corridors, so interconnectivity at office hours works well.
Some FOBs have glass railings that provide both security and clear visibility from the road, and discourage hawkers and beggars from squatting there.
These well-lit FOBs interconnect shopping malls, office lobbies, train stations, parks and other public/private spaces. Escalators instead of ramps deter two wheelers, allowing pedestrians to move around with ease.
The design of a FOB should somewhere address the emotional connect of the city’s people as a public space, and perhaps be designed as an architectural marvel and as the city’s landmark. The Airport Parkway FOB in Ottawa, for example, has become a much admired landmark due to its striking appearance that contributes to the city’s collective identity. It features a curved cement tower that rises 30 metres above the Airport Parkway. The bridge is suspended by 14 cables that are lit up at night by recessed LED lights in the railings and overhead lights in the tower.
I have always wanted to get a view of our cities from a great height, to walk in the midst of a busy street yet not be overwhelmed by the traffic, or jostled by the crowd, and to feel the pulse of the city through the interconnectedness of its welcoming public spaces.
Let us together make this real.
Let us claim this public space that is presently lost to our view, and, therefore, lost to our imagination and creative sensibility.
written by Ar. Babika Goel
-My special thanks to my friend Ar. Mukul Goyal for his inputs, patience and advice in getting this together.