Two hundred years ago, when the tide was low enough, it was possible to walk from part of Brooklyn to Governors Island—a small island 400 yards away—on a sandbar. Then the waterway was dredged to make way for commercial shipping. But a Brooklyn-based artist is trying to temporarily reconnect a pedestrian path, through a floating bridge that would pop up for one day each summer.
"It's trying to refocus New Yorkers' attention on the waterway as a public space that's there for them," says artist Nancy Nowacek.
While it's possible to visit Governors Island on a ferry now, the art project is designed to bring people—literally—closer to the water, separated from the surface by only a few feet. "Riding in ferries is like riding on the subway," she says. "The transportation can override the experience of being on the water. For me, the important thing about the bridge is that it will bring all those who cross it into a different kind of relationship with the water."
As someone crosses, they'll be able to stop and look around. "The experience with the bridge is meant to allow people to walk out into the harbor and pause," she says. "And stand in the middle of the harbor and really see themselves as citizens of this waterborne city rather than a city that's made of asphalt and concrete."
Nowacek has spent four years working with engineers on a design that can handle the curves of the waterway and the forces as tides shift in the estuary. Engineers are currently designing a modular system with floating sections of bridge that connect to anchorage platforms; the length of each section is based on the rigidity and flexibility needed because of conditions on the water. In previous prototypes, a plywood platform floated on barrels, and then foam. Now, the engineers plan to replace the foam, to protect aquatic life from any potential negative effects. The new prototype will be the team’s seventh design.
Working to get permission for the bridge—from as many as eight agencies—is equally challenging. "No one's written regulations in the city for a floating pedestrian bridge," she says.
In a Kickstarter campaign, she's crowdfunding a proof-of-concept span to test operations, safety, and logistics. By the end of the summer of 2017, if all goes well, she hopes to launch the full bridge for a day. For the two weeks before and after the event, she'll work with various partners to host other events connected to the water, celebrating everything from boat-building to oyster farming.
"New Yorkers can, in a way, go to camp and learn about the waterways," she says.
Her goal is to inspire others to reconsider how the water might be used. "I'm hoping this project will catalyze a whole new set of uses for the waterway that we haven't even thought of yet," she says.
After the day-long bridge is taken down—and before it goes up again the next summer—it could potentially travel to other cities. "It can go on as modular pieces and be used by other people," she says. "The thing I don't want to happen is that we call a lot of raw materials into being and then they sit somewhere in a warehouse. That's the worst-case scenario for me for so many reasons."