Rendering of Brilliant Branch Bridge Envisioning Study, AE7 Planners and Architects. Courtesy AE7 Planners and Architects

We really wanted to celebrate the Brilliant Branch Bridge in our design and call attention to its historical significance—not only is it a compelling industrial structure, but it is also a great example of early-20th-century bridge construction. In our proposal the bridge is utilized as an elevated park that spans the Allegheny River.

Because the bridge was designed for two tracks, there’s plenty of space up there. We propose landscaping the bridge with native plant species, and even allowing the plants to tell part of the industrial history of Pittsburgh [by using species that reflect the changes in the region’s ecosystem brought on by industrial development]. We wanted to incorporate some art installations as well. In the first bay of the bridge we suggested a metal sculpture suspended above the walkway that would pay homage to the metalwork that used to occur here in Pittsburgh. In the second bay we proposed reclaiming two flatbed railroad cars and proposed grandstand areas that you can sit in and look over the water. In the final bay we proposed low planter beds with vines that would eventually grow to cover a section of the bridge.

Diagram showing proposed and existing bike trails. Courtesy AE7 Planners and Architects.

You talk about connectivity—there have been several studies on light rail expansion and plans for busways in these areas that are threatened by possible budget cuts. How much did all of these regional plans influence your thinking about the bridge?

At the time we drew up these plans, we didn’t know about the previous studies of expanding the T northbound into Aspinwall across the Brilliant Branch Bridge. We recognize the dollar figure for such a project would cause—has caused—sticker shock for many people. We felt that an expanded bike trail system could be a great alternative and cost significantly less. By filling in the gaps in the existing bike network and creating safer, protected trails, people would more readily use these bike paths, not just to get to and from work, but for leisure too.

That’s not to say that rail couldn’t be integrated. The bridge is incredibly sturdy. In fact, in 2003, there were some refurbishments done where they actually went in and stiffened it up even more so that they could withstand heavier trains.

Your plan also connects to the Great Allegheny Passage, and as of June, the U.S. Bicycle Route 50.

Basically, this trail would make it so you could bike from East Liberty all the way to D.C. on a protected trail, without cars. Once the 50,000 miles of the U.S. Bicycle Route 50 is complete, Brilliant Branch would connect to all 50 states.

People in Pittsburgh are increasingly choosing to bike around the city anyway, but this would be a great boost for the bicycle tourists visiting Pittsburgh on the GAP or Route 50. They wouldn’t need Uber or anything to get around.

Back to the High Line—even though it has become a popular model for renovating infrastructure, its impact on New York has been somewhat controversial.

The “G” word—gentrification—typically pops up in these discussions. It’s a difficult question that I don’t have a good answer to yet.

Really, if people did want this to happen we need to get more community buy-in. Like I said, this was intended to start a conversation, to show the potential of what the bridge could be, and to get people interested and involved in it. Maybe it’s just a bike trail, maybe it has some sort of transit component. It could be something else we haven’t considered yet, like a bridge museum or an industrial history museum. Why not? We’re still open to ideas.

Sarah Rafson

Sarah Rafson is the founder of Point Line Projects, an editorial and curatorial agency for architecture and design. She serves on the board of ArchiteXX, an advocacy organization for women in architecture.