2021 SCUP Winner in Focus: Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Spirit Bridge

by Laura Tenny, ASLA

FDU Spirit Bridge / image: Sahar Coston-Hardy, Affil. ASLA

Congratulations to this year’s SCUP 2021 Excellence in Landscape Architecture winners! This national award is given annually by the Society for College and University Planning to recognize outstanding campus design and planning projects. ASLA’s Campus Planning and Design Professional Practice Network (PPN) celebrates our colleagues who are working in the higher education environment.

This year’s Landscape Architecture winners are:

Jury’s Choice Award for Outstanding Achievement in Integrated Planning and Design
Wellesley College
1998 Wellesley College Master Plan and Implemented Projects
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates; Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects (MSME); Elizabeth Meyer; Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design, Inc.; H Plus Incorporated

Excellence in Landscape for General Design
Fairleigh Dickinson University
FDU Spirit Bridge
Viridian Landscape Studio; BEAM Ltd.; Maser Consulting; ICI Consultants, Inc.; Roofmeadow; Bruce Brooks Associates; Big R Bridge

Excellence in Landscape for Open Space Planning
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Virginia Tech Infinite Loop and Green Links
Sasaki; HG Design Studio; Accessibility Consultants, Inc.
[See the Campus Planning and Design PPN’s summer 2019 newsletter for a member spotlight of Jack Rosenberger, ASLA, Campus Landscape Architect at Virginia Tech.]

We wanted to dig a little deeper into these fantastic campus projects, so for this Field post, we (virtually) sat down with principal Tavis Dockwiller, ASLA, and project manager Victor Trujillo of Viridian Landscape Studio of Philadelphia, PA, to learn more about their FDU Spirit Bridge project.

Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Metropolitan Campus in Teaneck, New Jersey, occupies opposite banks of the broad Hackensack River. Historically, the sole campus pedestrian crossing of the river was a 1960s chain link and concrete bridge that spanned 200’ over the river. To reach the other side of campus without using the bridge required a mile-long walk. The Metropolitan Campus is the most urban campus in the FDU system, and serves a high percentage of commuter students from the local community. Some 60 languages are spoken on the multi-lingual campus, and core academic programs include instruction in business, science, and health professions.

image: Viridian Landscape Studio

When campus administrators first undertook a study of the aging bridge, they were not considering a landscape project. Cost estimates revealed that short-term repairs would be an expensive short-term solution vs. the premium to bring in a new bridge. The Viridian landscape team was already working with the University on various landscape and stormwater campus projects, including daylighting a stream and removing invasive plants from the Little Mill Pond. Tavis and Victor were asked to bring their creativity to brainstorm ideas for a bridge replacement. In partnership with FDU Facilities, the Viridian team generated concept ideas to transform the bridge into an elevated garden crossing that would bring the landscape to the bridge and showcase native plantings. The client group was intrigued, never before having considered the bridge as a place or destination in its own right, and recognizing an opportunity to link a greener bridge to a developing ecological campus identity.

The landscape architect was the Prime consultant on this complex hybrid landscape-infrastructure project, overseeing the work of a structural engineer and other disciplines including civil engineering, lighting, green roof, and irrigation. Many utilities ran along the underside of the bridge and had to be maintained, including a major tel-data cable that served the entire campus and could not be disturbed, and existing water and electrical lines.

The team analyzed the many constraints of building over a river, including wind and structural loading, wind mitigation, and environmental permitting. They ultimately settled on a pre-cast bridge so as to avoid disturbance to the existing piers in the river, which would have required a costly and time-intensive permitting process with the Army Corps of Engineers. An extremely tight schedule gave the team only a few months to design, fabricate, and install the bridge. The installation of bridge sections was done entirely by crane from the land, with no construction operations on water.

image: Viridian Landscape Studio / Sahar Coston-Hardy, Affil. ASLA

The bridge landscape consists of a gently winding paved path dotted with three large curving canopy structures that provide shade, seating, and shelter from wind. Existing bridge pier locations dictated where the shade structures could be set. Wifi and electricity are provided to accommodate activities from study to concerts.

Planting was designed as a green roof system. Linear Corten steel-sided planters run the full length of the bridge and support a series of linear recycled teak benches. The massings of native plants cool and soften the path edges, improve the view over the river, and frame spaces for gathering. Planters are insulated with foam to save weight and protect against winter freezing. They rest on a steel frame that allows for temperature fluctuations and bridge movement; some are even suspended over the outside rail. Hardy, drought-tolerant plants include a variety of native perennials and low shrubs. Fragrant sumac creates height and lends interesting shapes.

Victor and Tavis report that campus admissions staff now post Instagram photos with the Spirit Bridge as their backdrop and students regularly meet there to study and hang out. They say the bridge has become a draw for the surrounding community and a link to campus open spaces. It has galvanized other ecologically-minded landscape projects across campus: removing invasives, creating new plantings and entry landscapes, and serving as the keystone in FDU’s “Eco-Park” landscape plan to improve community and environmental health and resilience.

Laura Tenny, RLA, ASLA, is Senior Campus Planner in MIT’s Office of Campus Planning, and is an officer and past co-chair of ASLA’s Campus Planning and Design Professional Practice Network (PPN).

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