Take a good look at this bridge, because it’s quite possibly one of the most important pieces of new transport infrastructure in the world.
It’s called the Luchtsingel, and it’s a 400m-long footbridge in Rotterdam. Elevated walkways in cities aren’t a new idea. In the 1950/60s, it was planned that London would be served by a network of Pedways. Hong Kong has had them for years. But rarely are they delivered with such panache as the Luchtsingel, and never before has any similar piece of transport infrastructure been delivered largely as the result of a bottom-up funding effort by interested people instead of a top-down imposition by city planners.
It’s an incredibly friendly and attractive structure. Seen in plan, it has three arms, which meet at an elevated circular walkway (shades of the Hovenring, anyone?) over an urban park. It’s made of sustainably sourced Douglas Fir, left in its natural colour on the external faces of the bridge. On its deck the Luchtsingel is finished in bright yellow. It’s a highly visible intervention in the city, a vein of constructed sunshine coursing through the greys, browns and blacks of typical city streets.
It’s an angular structure for the most part, not one of those curvy footbridges you sometimes find in new developments. The eight staircases which lead up to the deck join at right angles. The straight sides of the bridge slope slightly inwards, giving a feel of confident embrace. Only where the Luchtsingel crosses a railway line are its sides taller than head-height (typical for footbridges over railways, and reducing the likelihood of vandalism or suicide). Along the rest of it views of the surroundings keep the Luchtsingel connected to the urban area it serves. Its name translates into English as “Air Canal” and there is indeed something appealingly reminiscent of a canal about its appearance.
The Luchtsingel is situated slightly east of Rotterdam Centraal railway station in the Hofplein district. Until very recently, this was one of those odd little forgotten areas you can find in many large cities. Despite being close to the centre of the action geographically, something about them has left them a patchwork of abandoned, derelict, or underdeveloped plots of land. These are the places where you find the scrap yards, the outdoor storage areas, the dumping grounds for containers whose lives on ships are over. Very often it’s because the plots of land are small, awkwardly shaped, hard to access, or don’t represent attractive development opportunities individually.
The failure of an office development in 2011 left a number of Hofplein’s large office buildings vacant in an area which was already unattractive and under-developed. Local architecture firm ZUS decided enough was enough, and resolved to do something about this overlooked part of Rotterdam. It came up with the idea of reusing the vacant buildings, and regenerating several forgotten or underused plots of land, with everything linked by a new footbridge. Each individual development might have been difficult to develop as a one-off, but they would be tied together into a portfolio of projects connected by the Luchtsingel. The new bridge would also open up the area to more pedestrian movement in general, and this made the project a practical proposition.
Nevertheless, a new regeneration-driving footbridge wasn’t very high on the list of priorities for Rotterdam’s authorities. So ZUS made the extraordinary decision to develop the Luchtsingel in stages, and crowdfund it, relying on a large number of small contributions from private individuals to get the project started. For the princely sum of €25 anyone, anywhere, could contribute to the cost of one of the Luchtsingel’s planks via a dedicated website. And they did. There were more pricey options to fund larger sections of the bridge too.
That’s why, as you walk along the Luchtsingel today, you walk past 8,000 planks each inscribed with the name of the person of who funded it, or a message of the funder’s choice.
In 2012, the first phase of the Luchtsingel connected Rotterdam Centraal station to Schiekade, straight through the Schieblock building, immediately opening up Hofplein through what used to be a substantial barrier to free movement. This is now the western leg of the Luchtsingel. On top of the Schieblock ZUS created the DakAkker, an urban garden in which fruits and vegetables are grown and bees are kept. The intention behind the DakAkker is to test various concepts in green roofs which might be replicated in other towns and cities. Having proved the concept of crowdfunded infrastructure, the Luchtsingel won the Rotterdam City Initiative, which saw the project granted additional financing. In 2013, the second part of the bridge opened on the Schiekade.
The third part of the bridge, on the northern leg of the Luchtsingel, opened in late 2013, crossing the railway tracks. This was one of the most difficult parts of the construction to organise, and had to wait for the railway line underneath to be closed for engineering works.
In 2014, the roundabout over Park Pompenburg was completed. This is the centrepiece of the Luchtsingel, where the three arms of the bridge meet. What was previously an unattractive storage yard has been transformed into a green urban space for recreation, relaxation, sport and play. Pedestrians on the Luchtsingel can look down through the centre of the roundabout to the park below. It’s a lovely piece of design that encourages dawdling, reflection and connection with those down below.
At the end of 2014, the link from the Luchtsingel down onto the roof of the old Hofplein station was completed. The station closed in 2006 and while the arches underneath have been subject to redevelopment for some time, the building of the Luchtsingel has allowed the creation of public event space on the newly accessible station roof. Finally, in the summer of 2015, the last stretch of the Luchtsingel was finished, and with it the Luchtsingel as a whole.
The Luchtsingel is 400m of community spirit rendered in physical form, connecting new spaces and facilities for local people. You can walk along it surrounded by the names of those who decided they weren’t prepared to wait for Rotterdam’s local authorities to get round to improving a run-down district of the city, who wanted something to be done today not tomorrow, and who bought into the vision of ZUS. The Luchtsingel is a wooden agent of change that has sparked the rebirth of its locale. It’s a bright yellow beacon that points to a new way of delivering transport infrastructure, where like-minded people get together and, through tiny pieces of funding multiplied by the size of the crowd, turn their aspirations into reality.
Who knows where that might end? All over the place, there are countless communities with desires for transport that have proved frustratingly difficult to turn into reality when left in the hands of local authorities. Towns that want a railway station but can’t get it high enough up the political agenda. Residents in housing areas who want a safe, segregated, cycle route so that their children can cycle to school and their adults can cycle to work. What the Luchtsingel proves is that if a community wants transport infrastructure enough, they are prepared to get together and pay for it themselves.
For me, I just want a crowdfunded design for a new non-rubbish, non-ugly bus shelter that is economical enough for local authorities to be willing to pay for. One that looks attractive and keeps bus passengers dry, without gaps at the top and bottom of the walls. I’m ready with my €25.
How to find the Luchtsingel
The Luchtsingel’s official website, here
ZUS architects’ website page for the Luchtsingel, here