By Mack Male
In marking its 100th anniversary, Lawrence Herzog declared "the High Level Bridge stands as Edmonton’s most iconic structure." Built by Canadian Pacific Railway, the bridge connected Strathcona and Edmonton and was "a landmark engineering achievement." It remains a vital part of our city's transportation network, serving as a key river crossing for cars, bicycles, pedestrians, and the streetcar. But what if the High Level Bridge could be more than just a river crossing? What if it was also a destination, a place to enjoy?
That's the urban planning wish that Ryan Stephens outlined at Taproot Live on June 21 at the Sugar Swing Ballroom. "The High Level is my commuting lifeline," he told the audience. Stephens cycles across the bridge every day to get to his job as communications co-ordinator at the Edmonton Heritage Council.
"Both levels were used regularly back in the old days," he said, noting that at one time there were three rail lines going across the top deck. As we look ahead to the High Level Bridge's next 100 years, why not make better use of that top deck?
It's not a new idea, and Stephens was quick to point out that he didn't come up with it. Like many Edmontonians, he saw a rendering from the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters Society that envisioned a park on the top deck that would create "a signature public space for Edmonton." Perhaps the most well-known example of taking an old rail line and converting it into a public space is the High Line in New York City. "What really inspired me about the High Line is that it was such a community-activated project," he said.
In terms of challenges, Stephens noted the province has plans to use the top deck for high-speed rail between Edmonton and Calgary, which he admits is also a compelling idea. Additionally, the top deck is windy, it would re-open the conversation about barriers and safety — the anti-suicide fences were just installed along the bottom deck a year ago — and of course there would be aesthetic considerations. "I would really hate for it to come at the expense of the streetcar," he added.
Does that mean his wish is destined to remain just that, a wish? Not necessarily, said Erik Backstrom, a senior planner at the City of Edmonton. He thinks there are two key opportunities to influence what happens to the High Level Bridge. The first is an evaluation of bicycle and pedestrian corridor improvements that city council discussed last week. The second is the Centre LRT Study that will examine how to connect Strathcona, Downtown, and Bonnie Doon via light rail transit (LRT). The City is planning a series of public engagement activities throughout the summer to gather feedback on the idea.
"Maybe we could widen that top deck a little as part of a rehab so that you could have a streetcar with bikes," Backstrom suggested. "The bridge is the busiest piece of cycling infrastructure we have in Edmonton."
In terms of making it a destination rather than simply a crossing, Backstrom pointed to the Mechanized River Valley Access project as evidence that we can apply that mentality here in Edmonton. "As part of the thinking for that system of conveyances, the designers were inspired by the High Line," he told the audience. "They've built seating places or basking places into the stairwell. It's not the High Line, but it's that kind of thinking."
The last major investment into the High Level Bridge was the $19.9 million the City spent in the mid-1990s. To ensure the bridge lasts for another hundred years, it's going to take some new investment, Backstrom said. And he suggested that we look to the past for inspiration. When it opened, the High Level Bridge was the fourth largest in Canada and was the only one to carry five modes of transportation — rail, streetcar, automobile, bicycle, and pedestrian.
"As we think about the next generation of the High Level Bridge, let's be similarly thoughtful and come up with something that's inspiring for the next hundred years."