Bridge to Change: The Brooklyn Bridge Forest Project Driving Climate Action

Wood has become the material of choice for sustainable projects, such as the competition-winning Brooklyn Bridge Forest initiative, but it has potential for action far beyond the project at hand. Lucy Ingham speaks to Scott Francisco, the architect behind the bridge design, to find out more

Images courtesy of Pilot Projects Design Collective

Wood has seen growing interest in architecture over the last decade, but for Scott Francisco, founder and director of Pilot Projects Design Collective, which won the recent Reimagining Brooklyn Bridge design competition, it has been a passion of a lifetime.

“I've been in the architecture profession for about 20 years, and my interest has always revolved around making things, the actual construction process, materials and in particular wood. I've always had a real interest in wood,” he says.

His surroundings echo this. Francisco is talking via Zoom from a wooden boathouse on top of a lake in Northern Ontario, some two hours from Toronto. Waves can be heard lapping against the building, which Francisco rebuilt after inheriting it from his grandfather.

“I grew up with a hammer and a saw in my hands long before I was studying architecture, and so it's a very familiar material for me,” he says.

This interest in wood is reflected in Francisco’s work. In addition to leading the Pilot Projects Design Collective, Francisco is also co-founder and director of Cities4Forests and founder and director of Wood at Work. He has been involved in a host of sustainability-focused projects, including office redesigns, community developments and public space upgrades.

However, his longest-running project has been the Brooklyn Bridge Forest initiative, a reimagining of one of New York City’s most iconic landmarks as a beacon of sustainability for the city.

Scott Francisco, founder and director of Pilot Projects Design Collective.

The Brooklyn Bridge Forest project: Making an icon fit for the future

The Brooklyn Bridge Forest project, in its current form, seeks to meet the needs of the city, underpinned by a strong sense of sustainability and respect for the structure’s heritage.

“Our goal as a team was to share the experience that our grandparents or great grandparents would have had of the bridge with the next generations,” says Francisco.

“So not to reinvent the bridge, fundamentally, but rather to figure out a way to bring it forward in time and serve the real urgent needs of the city today.”

The design, in the form that won the Reimagining Brooklyn Bridge competition, builds on earlier versions of the project by Francisco and his colleagues, which focused on sustainability but made little structural changes to the bridge itself, largely because he did not believe the city would be receptive to such changes.

However, the competition encouraged structural changes in order to support the vastly different range of pedestrian and vehicular traffic that uses the bridge now, compared to when it was first built.

“This competition provided an open door to say, well, if you are going to expand or reconfigure the promenade to serve the very much increased capacity needs, how would you do it?” he says.

This version of the design, which was led by Pilot Projects, with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Cities4Forests, Grimshaw and Silman making up the design team, focused on keeping “the spirit of the promenade intact while expanding it”.

“ The bridge has been around for 137 years. It's seen a lot of changes. 

This sees the upper promenade expanded to provide a much-increased space for pedestrian traffic, as well as a bike lane, while one lane of the lower vehicle level in each direction is converted into an additional cycle path, with one side for conventional bikes, and the other for faster electric-assist vehicles. Several areas surrounding the bridge’s approach are also adapted to create micro-forests, community spaces and on-ramps for cyclists.

“Our proposition is that we keep the 16ft-wide main promenade with planks pretty much in the position that's in, elevating it a little bit to allow for an extension of the bike lane on one side and these lookouts on the other side, and those two added elements triple the capacity,” Francisco explains.

The addition of viewing areas is important, he says, because it “brings those people off of the main pedestrian thoroughfare” and so relieves congestion. However, multiple provisions for cyclists were also vital, given changing methods of transport and the rise of microbility within the city.

“We want to have as much bike capacity [as possible] and we're also looking at gradually diminishing the car traffic on the bridge. So we saw the whole lower deck as a platform for innovation on transport transit in the city over time,” he says. “That would be done in in consultation with communities, advocacy groups, the city government and the Department of Transportation.”

However, Francisco is keen to stress that the changes to the lower deck are not set in stone, and are intentionally planned to respond to the changing transport needs of the city, with the proposed bike lanes intended to run as a one-year test, and vehicle traffic intended to be discouraged with a London-style congestion charge.

“That whole lower deck could be gradually transformed, but we didn't want to suggest that we knew exactly how it should be transformed right now,” he says.

“Will it be electric cars and autonomous vehicles? Will it be some kind of new type of streetcar? Will it be personal electric-assist bicycles that really take off? There's so many different possibilities.”

“There's the five-years scenario and then there's the 20-years scenario. The bridge has been around for 137 years. It's seen a lot of changes.”

Mecanoo's design for Futian Civic Culture Center in Shenzhen, China, features numerous sky gardens | Image courtesy of Mecanoo

Early beginnings: Wood at the core

While the current form of the project provides significant expansion to the capacity of the bridge, the heart of the project has always been wood and conservation.

The first seeds of the project were sown when Francisco moved to New York City in 2005, following the completion of his graduate degree at MIT.

“I had always been really fascinated by the story of it, how it was built, and I was living in Brooklyn and commuting across the bridge to the financial district,” he explains.

“And one morning I decided to walk barefoot across the bridge – there was a barefoot walking movement at that time in the hipster centre of Brooklyn, and it was about your feet really experiencing the ground and better posture and so forth. So I was like, 'where can I do this?' and the Brooklyn Bridge was the obvious place because of this beautiful wooden boardwalk.”

Walking across the bridge in this way made Francisco consider how the wood “really made the experience of the Brooklyn Bridge extremely unique and also spoke to the history of the bridge”.

“The bridge is really this beautiful composition of three materials, steel, stone and wood, and each have a very distinct property,” he says.

“ I tried to picture how much forest it would take to supply these thousands of planks on the bridge, and I was kind of immediately struck with this calculus of the forest impact in the tropics. 

“The wood is this material that is really just laid out for the pedestrian to experience the softness and warmth and ability of the wood to kind of mark time. And you see, as you walk on these boards, that they've been there for a very long time.”

Walking across the boards, Francisco began to think about the periodic replacement of the planks, and where the wood would come from, and “if they're even going to use wood at all”.

“I tried to picture how much forest it would take to supply these thousands of planks on the bridge, and I was kind of immediately struck with this calculus of the forest impact in the tropics; imagine how bad it would be if they didn't use wood and how can we do this in a way that would be sustainable,” he says.

This prompted to begin thinking about “how the bridge could form a partnership with the forest and the forest could be productive and sustainable”.

“It was a question of: how much land would that require? How much forest would that be? How much would that cost? What's the rate of sustainable yield from different types of forest?” he says.

“And I started building this network of experts and researchers and practitioners in tropical forest ecology and sustainability to try to figure that out. And that was really what formed the Brooklyn Bridge Forest.”

Coolest White is designed to reduce absorption and emission of the sun's rays by 12% | Image courtesy of UN Studio

Partner forests: Bridging sustainability

From its inception, the project has focused on this “idea of proactive procurement”, where the sourcing of materials becomes an innate and highly visible part of the project that makes it a showcase for sustainability within the city.

“If we do it right, and we can showcase this on the bridge, it tells a story that the world can see,” explains Francisco.

“It's about the city taking a specific position on sustainable consumption. And that itself was a really core idea because cities often think of themselves as sustainable entities, like lower transportation, footprints, etc., but in fact cities are the majority consumers of the world's resources.”

Central to this is the establishment of a partner forest that will be the sustainable supplier of the wood, rather than merely using FSC-certified materials. This would ensure sustainable and visible sourcing, where both locations felt a connection to the other.

The forest in question for this project is located in Guatemala, although the same approach, says Francisco, could apply to “a community elsewhere in the world”.

“I really wanted to forge a link where the community felt invested in it, they felt like they were participating in the construction of this landmark,” he says.

“And vice versa, that the community in New York City felt that they had a stake in the success of this forest, and that they would be watching and making sure that this forest was being taken care of.”

In taking this approach, Francisco hopes that there will also be community impacts in the locations of tropical forests, which not only face the risk of deforestation but also a loss of skills as young people look to cities to build their futures.

“If you're a young person growing up in a forest community, whether it's Guatemala or the Congo, or Indonesia – these are some hotspots of forest conservation needs – are you incentivised in any way to stay in that community and work on these challenging issues?” he says.

“The answer is really no. For the most part, if you're a young person there, you're thinking: how do I get out? How do I get to a big city? And your parents are often telling you that that's what they want you to do, because there's really no opportunity here.”

“ Given the importance of global forest conservation, tropical and otherwise, how does any built infrastructure offer an opportunity to establish a partnership like that; to support a conservation initiative that is both productive and conserving landscape? 

This comes as maintaining tropical forests has increasingly been highlighted as vital in the fight against climate change, with the Paris Agreement specifically including their conservation.

“It's pretty well agreed on that tropical forests represent one third of the climate solution, and that's through stopping deforestation and restoring degraded forests to produce one third of what is required to meet the Paris Accord agreements,” says Francisco.

“Now, if you bring all the world leaders together, and you say that and then, at the same time, a 16-year-old living in Guatemala says the best thing I can do is get out of here and get a job in the city, you have a complete disconnect between what the world needs and what the culture is telling them to do.”

The partner forest approach is designed to tackle this issue, borne out of Francisco’s wider research and activism projects with Cities4Forests, which explored what can be done to get young people excited about working in such areas.

“How do we help create linkages where working for us is seen as something important and interesting and cool?” he explains.

“And that came from the Brooklyn Bridge for us because it was like, hey, the Brooklyn Bridge is pretty cool and if I'm working on producing that wood in a community somewhere very far away, and I can understand that the work that I'm doing is contributing to something like that, and maybe I can visit it and that spins off into other entrepreneurial ventures and so forth, that sort of changes the dynamic.”

Such an approach has been proposed for the Brooklyn Bridge, but Francisco is keen for it to be replicated in other projects and cities around the world.

“How many times do we need to do that globally, to start breaking that cycle of urbanisation where young people in rural communities just want to move to the city because that's where the cool work is?”

For architects, then, Francisco urges a greater focus on the opportunities of partner forests for projects.

“To your audience, I would say, given the importance of global forest conservation, tropical and otherwise, how does any built infrastructure offer an opportunity to establish a partnership like that; to support a conservation initiative that is both productive and conserving landscape?” he says.

“Charismatic urban infrastructure provides opportunities to make these partnerships and find financial models to support them.”

From idea to reality

Funding is, of course, vital to getting any project built, and here the plan is to use a sponsorship model, where individuals are able to sponsor planks at an average of $1,000.

“That would generate a conservation fund, that would not only pay for the wood so that the city would not be paying extra anything for this wood, but it would also invest in local conservation, with forest conservation in New York City,” explains Francisco.

“So it's very important that the project spoke to the conservation issues right at home and used that to connect to these forests that were also far away.”

However, while the project has gained considerable ground, winning the Reimagining Brooklyn Bridge competition does not guarantee that it will become reality.

“It's an ideas competition, so there's no guarantees of any kind from the city to do anything,” says Francisco.

“The co-organiser of the competition is the New York City Counil, and so that's helpful in that they were sponsoring this competition in order to generate ideas for a real problem. So there's a sense that something has to be done. This competition is seen as a way to get ideas circulating, to move something forward.”

And while nothing is yet set in stone, Francisco does say there is a “sense of urgency” around the project.

“The current mayor, Mayor de Blasio, is in office at least until next November, at which time he'll be running again, I understand,” he says.

“But the speaker of the city council has expressed an interest in running for mayor and sustainable transportation and infrastructure that supports that is one of his platform ideas. So that would help to move that forward.”

“ We ignited conversations that have been going on for many years, but our proposal included what we call their phase zero. 

Meanwhile, Francisco says his team is “very much intent on moving the project forward”, and has already begun efforts to get the first stages off the ground using methods that would keep costs low and could bringing immediate transport benefits.

“We ignited conversations that have been going on for many years, but our proposal included what we call their phase zero, which was immediately actionable steps that the city could take, that would be no cost to the city because they could be very easily co-funded,” he explains.

“And that specifically was the micro-forest plazas on either side of the bridge that would also serve to get access to that lower deck bike lane. So we're pushing the idea that the city could take immediate action and relieve some of the current pressure right now, with one two-way bike lane on the north side that would have a bike ramp plaza that's on the Brooklyn side and then the reclaimed off-ramp on the Manhattan side.”

Going forward, the focus is on adopting “pop-up solutions” that can help ease support of the wider project and can be easily funded with sponsorship.

“My company Pilot Projects Design Collective was born out of a belief in the need for projects that would be quickly deployed and built with the DNA of larger scale change, but that would be executed at us at a modest scale,” he explains.

“So that people can see and feel and interact with the infrastructure, and in so doing help to perpetuate the larger systems change.

“When you're dealing with large-scale systems change, if you're at the macro level, it can seem insurmountable, like how could you possibly change this culture, this infrastructure, this whatever, but if you take discrete pieces and you test out ideas, not only is it a learning experience, but you're engaging people and really getting people invested in these changes.”

And in the long run, he hopes that not only will this help make the Brooklyn Bridge Forest project a reality, but help support similar efforts in other cities.

“We believe very much in that and in a way that the whole Brooklyn Bridge Forest is a pilot because we're thinking of this at the scale of the world, and thousands of cities around the world all doing this.”

The power of cities

At time of intense uncertainty and urgent need for climate action, Francisco sees cities, and the projects that architects undertake within them, as vital not only as pinnacles for potential change, but as part of the wider whole.

“Cities provide tremendous leadership in the way that world systems operate, and everything that we do in a city has reverberating impacts in the cultures that we are working in; in the technological systems we're working in; in the political and regulatory systems and in the market,” explains Francisco.

“So every project that an architect does, in particular in a city, should be seen as part of a larger systems development.

“Sometimes that means holding on to something that needs to be preserved. Other times, it means changing something that really needs to be changed.”

Here he argues that not all architects see their work as part of a wider system.

“The development of the systems that we work in is one of the responsibilities of the architect that I think has been misunderstood by many architects,” he says, pointing to “grandiose” projects put forward by some architects that “pay little attention to the context”.

“But the system's context that we work in is of paramount importance right now. And if every project can participate in the development of the systems, what are the systems that we want to see? What is the context that we want to see in the future? How does it relate to labour, to knowledge, to skills? Every project can address these things,” he urges.

“Do we want an automated built environment, which is built is built by robots and run by robots? For some that might seem like a utopia, but for others, it seems like the exact opposite.”