The recent structural failure on the Sabo Bridge was disconcerting, though thankfully far from calamitous. In the ensuing discussion, I was surprised—though probably I shouldn’t have been—to see how forthrightly people came forth and criticized the fact that the bridge was constructed with attention to form as well as function. One commenter wondered why we felt the need to spend so much money “to look like Copenhagen,” and another weighed in by suggesting that we need to be “fiscally responsible.” My response:
“This safety risk and ensuing delay is certainly lamentable—but I don’t think it’s fair to blame the bridge’s structural problems on its aesthetics. As we saw with the old 35W bridge, a structure doesn’t need to be beautiful to be unsafe.
“The Sabo Bridge is one of the most acclaimed and iconic structures to be built anywhere in Minnesota in recent years, and from the perspective of someone who rides a bike rather than drives a car, I appreciate the way that the striking bridge draws attention to the many Twin Cities residents who bike and walk. Normally we’re shoved off to the side of roadways and routed under gargantuan freeways, or allowed to pass over those freeways in chain-link cages. In this context, particularly with the increasing environmental and economic importance of alternative, sustainable transportation, the Sabo Bridge is truly refreshing.”
There’s a larger issue, though: how important is design and visual impact in civic infrastructure? Shouldn’t we just build purely functional roads and bridges, and leave the aesthetics to the aesthetes?
Most criticisms of investing in design come from the government-shrinking right, and after enduring eight years of George W. Bush’s heinous banners, it comes as no surprise that the average Republican couldn’t design his or her way out of a parking ramp (or, more to the point, a foreign occupation). But the conservative attack on public spending for aesthetics is married to the broader right-wing preference to make assumptions about human nature rather than acknowledge the reality of it.
Trickle-down economics? Doesn’t work. Gay marriage? Stronger than straight marriage. Competitive health-care market? Leads to higher costs, for worse outcomes. And function-first urban infrastructure? Drives people away, hurts neighborhoods, undercuts cities’ economic viability.
It’s the function-first mentality that destroyed vibrant (if troubled) neighborhoods and replaced them with drab concrete (even more troubled) high-rises in the name of “urban renewal.” It’s the mentality that flies freeways and powerlines overhead rather than burying them so the neighborhoods above can be clean and quiet. It’s the mentality that allows commercial culture to clutter Minnesota’s highways with obnoxious billboards that block our state’s natural beauty from motorists’ eyes.
I went to college in Boston, a city that’s slowly figuring this out. City Hall Plaza is still an underpopulated grey expanse where the bustling Scollay Square used to be, but right next door is the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, a model of urban revitalization that showed the country how well an outdoor shopping mall, thoughtfully integrated into a historic neighborhood, could work. The Twin Cities weren’t the only cities that failed to heed its lessons as we bulldozed city blocks to build beached whales like Block E, Spruce Tree Centre, and Calhoun Square.
Boston invested again—on record scale—in urban livability by burying its once-elevated Central Artery underground in the mammoth public-works project known as “the Big Dig.” Now, what used to be a no-man’s-land between downtown and the North End is an open greenspace. We’re not about to bury the I-94/394 interchange (if only!), but we did very right by the new 35W bridge, a striking structure that beautifies rather than blights the riverfront.
Good design—design that’s safe, attractive, and created with actual human beings in mind—is a smart investment. Let’s keep the Twin Cities places where people are happy to visit, work, and live. Making our urban space into a Midwest wasteland is no way to lift us back to prosperity.
Photo: Sabo Bridge, by Alan Wilfahrt