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Beyond a Bridge

Beyond a Bridge

May 8, 2014

Tessa Anderson is a program officer with the CH2M HILL Foundation and is serving as program manager for the Bridges to Prosperity Panama project.

Last week, the CH2M HILL Foundation announced the 11-employee team selected to support a Bridges to Prosperity project in La Conga, Panama. As the team prepares for its kickoff call this week we have been contemplating the impact of what lays beyond a bridge.

I’m a communicator and a Foundation program officer. I am not a structural engineer. I can give presentations to elementary students about the principles of tension and compression to explain how a bridge “works.” But I can’t do the math or physics to make sure it can actually bare weight. However, I do understand that a bridge on the surface may appear to be stone and cable yet in reality represents so much more.

Memories of Europe included the Tower Bridge in London, St. Charles Bridge in Prague, Ponte Rialto in Venice and Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

Memories of Europe included the Tower Bridge in London, St. Charles Bridge in Prague, Ponte Rialto in Venice and Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

While studying abroad during my time at university and graduate school, I was fortunate to travel around Europe.  I have dozens of photos of me and friends on or near bridges of all sizes, from the little wooden bridges that cross a small creek at a tourist attraction to some of the world’s most iconic structures. Some of my favorite memories and attractions included the Tower Bridge in London, St. Charles Bridge in Prague, Ponte Rialto in Venice and Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

Opened in 1894, London’s iconic Tower Bridge took eight years, five major contractors, 432 construction workers, and 11,000 tons of steel to construct the bascule and suspension bridge. It spans 244 metres in length with its longest span at 61 metres. Today it’s a busy link across London with 40,000 motorists, cyclists and pedestrians using it to cross the Thames daily.

One of the most visited sites in Prague is the pedestrian St. Charles Bridge, famous for its many statues and stunning views. The Gothic stone bridge connects the Old Town with the area surrounding Prague Castle across the Vltava River. Comprised of 16 arches and commissioned in 1357, St. Charles measures 516 metres with its longest span of 13 metres.

The oldest of four bridges crossing Venice’s Grand Canal, the arch Rialto Bridge opened in 1591, measures 48 meters in length (approximately the same length as the bridge we’ll be constructing in Panama) and is supported by 12,000 wooden pilings. Its arch is higher than most at 7.5 meters to accommodate the galley ships that used to pass under it. For nearly 300 years it was the only way to cross the Canal on foot and was home to merchants. Today it remains a busy tourist crossing and is Venice’s most photographed and visited bridge.

Nicknamed the “old bridge,” Florence’s Ponte Vecchio is Europe’s oldest stone, closed-spandrel segmental arch bridge crossing the Arno River and noted for the shops that hang off its deck. While butchers initially occupied the shops they are now home to jewelers, art dealers and souvenir vendors. Its main arch is 30 meters bookended by two side arches spanning 27 meters. Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge left unscathed during WWII at the express order of Hitler.

These four iconic bridges have stood the test of time, natural disasters and war. They remain vibrant keystones in the landscape of their cities, economic hubs for commerce and tourists, and vital transportation linkages. With the exception of Tower Bridge, they remain pedestrian bridges and are popular with souvenir vendors, artists and musicians seeking opportunities to pursue their passions. These bridges changed the course of community development for their cities. When I visited as a student, they were a physical link to museums and castles, an easily identifiable point to meet friends, and a symbolic tie in discovering new cultures and connecting with history.

The Rio Trinidad running through the jungles of Panama.
The Rio Trinidad running through the jungles of Panama.

While the bridge our team will build over the Rio Trinidad in the jungles of Panama will likely never grace the front of a postcard, it is our intent that this bridge will become a transformational structure for the 200 people of La Conga. This bridge will literally and figuratively open pathways to opportunities for human progress: children will have a safe way to get to school, parents will have a bridge to access the economic markets of nearby Capira and healthcare will be within reach when needed. Just as tourists use St. Charles Bridge to connect the old and new towns in Prague, the residents of La Conga will use this bridge to the residents of La Conga will use this bridge to build a stronger future for their children and inspiration for new opportunities.

Over the next eight weeks, I invite you to join CH2M HILL, Bridges to Prosperity and the people of La Conga on this journey. Follow this blog to hear from the team members as they share technical details of our bridge, lessons they are learning and the impact of this bridge not only on La Conga but on each of us who will leave a piece of our hearts in the stones we lay.

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