Nancy Nowacek: Citizen Bridge

Bridges, in most all regards, are necessarily enduring infrastructure that enable transport of people, vehicles, and/or goods across an impassable obstacle (water, canyons, swift-moving multi-lane highways, etc).

What are the impacts, then, when a bridge is told that it may only exist for a day? How do the dueling obstacles of water and time ignite the design process?

Concept Demonstration, Governors Island 2012. Sculpture, lumber, drinking glasses, water. Video frame courtesy of the artist.

Citizen Bridge is such a bridge, and it’s development has been in concert with these stated obstacles rather than against them. Long ago, Brooklyn and Governors Island were connected by a walkable sandbar at low tide. It has been reported that Brooklyn farmers would walk their cows across this sandbar to graze in the island’s pastures. The body of water that separates them, Buttermilk Channel, was named for the strong tidal currents that could turn cows’ milk into butter should they—having miss low tide—be forced to swim back.

Citizen Bridge was inspired by the urge to reclaim that once-walkable space for the public, and further, after Superstorm Sandy, to empower New Yorkers in the face of climate change by reconnecting them to their waterways. New York City is sinking, and its waterways are a key to the city’s future. For generations, people growing up near water have known about tides and currents, marine life and swimming, and the implications of clouds, winds and other storm predictors. But today New Yorkers fear the water and what they don’t know about it.

Built by Nancy Nowacek and Brian Grove, tested October 2012. Video frame courtesy of the artist.

Simultaneously, as coastal cities will be more impacted by climate change, public space will become scarcer as city populations grow. The water that surrounds us—the harbor, rivers, creeks and bays—present significant opportunities for the future.

The local waterways are a new, unexplored frontier, as much as they are a perceived danger and threat. Citizen Bridge is a catalyst to reconnect New Yorkers to their waterways, through the monumental act of walking across and standing in the harbor.

Superblock, the first fully engineered design, was created in 2015 in dedicated collaboration with pro-bono architect Braden Caldwell, pro-bono advisory team Jessica Healy, Jonathan Marvel, Josh Rosenbloom, intern Nathaniel Healy and volunteer John Sharp. Structural engineering provided pro-bono by Thom Duffy, Jason Glenn, and Emerald Xu of Thornton Tomasetti. Marine engineering provided pro-bono by William Hurley, Brent Morrison, and Justin Van Emmerick of Glosten. Carpentry services provided pro-bono by Gotham Carpentry. Pro bono legal services provided by David Goldstein and Michael Greenberg, DLA Piper. Photo by Oresti Tsonopolous, courtesy of the artist.

Because of it’s large-scale ambition, Citizen Bridge faces many challenges, time and hydraulic forces among them. The project has been driven by these constraints, as well as a specific desired physical experience. The results could be considered an aesthetics of obstacles and affect, where the form and materiality of the project have emerged from these constraints.

Innovative thinking has also emerged from these constraints. Never before had pop-up infrastructure been a part of the urban imagination. Without working with the obstacle of time, the idea would not have emerged; however since Superstorm Sandy washed out segments of local bridges, temporary bridges now have a potential and necessary functionality in the urban landscape as much as they inspire the popular imagination.


Nancy Nowacek is a Brooklyn-based artist, designer, and educator with a history in socially-engaged art, visual design, design strategy, and education. Her interests are based in urban design, play, communication, and systems. She will be teaching at the Stevens Institute of Technology beginning fall 2017, and has presented works in New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Canada, South America, and Europe.