City River Bridge

[Another post that I've been intending on finishing for a while, but got shelved 
due to my move back to Los Angeles last fall...]

The 2007 I-35W Mississippi Bridge Collapse in Minneapolis has become just one of many infrastructure failures from the past few years.  But here in the Twin-Cities, crossing the River is part of our daily life. The impact of the collapse and rebuilding is still resonating  within our collective memory and in the fabric of our metropolis. Following the collapse, there was a symposium at the University of Minnesota in October 2008 to explore the fallout and implications of the bridge collapse hosted by the River Life project. My colleague and friend, Patrick Nunnally, edited the essays that emerged from the symposium into a book published in spring 2011. I promised him a no-holds bared review, so here it is.

The City, the River, the Bridge: Before and after the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse (University of Minnesota Press, 2011) covers a range of topics from the hyper-local impacts of the bridge closures and detours on the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, to bigger questions about our technological society. Organized into themes:

  1. The Bridge: Object, Metaphor, Process;
  2. The City: Neighborhoods and Transportation;
  3. The River: After the Collapse;

The essays vary in relevance to potential readers and perhaps limit the overall significance of the book by limiting their connections to the larger context.

Not to say that essays about one neighborhoods trauma and hardship, or the specifics of the local political solutions to an engineering problem don’t have a wider societal relevance. But this book is peculiarly Minnesotan in its insistence of ignoring the bigger picture and refusal to make connections with national and international precedence or similar project. (I’ve had many students at the U question why traveling outside the region was important since folks from elsewhere wouldn’t visit Minnesota!)

The one essay that transcends this provincialism is Tom Fisher’s chapter ‘Fracture-Critical: The  I-35W Bridge Collapse as Metaphor and Omen’ (an excerpt/derivation of this essay can be read on Places). Tom connects the failure of the gusset plates to the failure of our financial system, the failure of the levees in NOLA in Katrina, and our culture that cares more about paying the lowest up-front price for anything. He wraps up his chapter by discussing the need to build a more resilient future (which of course gets me all excited).

Over the coming decades, we need to bring together all of the environmental knowledge we have in order to nurture the natural systems we depend on, with all of the ethical understandings we can muster to help us thrive within the material constraints we will face. Of the bridges we will need to build in the process, the bridge in understanding that will help us leave behind our old hubris in order to reach a newfound humility may be the most important of all.

Avoiding fracture critical systems is a significant challenge for the 21st century. Conversely, avoiding unintended failures caused by the increasing complexity of systems is also a rising threat.

There is a good failure analysis of the bridge on Free Republic, and the official MnDOT 35w bridge pages on the history of the bridge, about the collapse.

Thanks to Patrick Nunnally and the University of Minnesota Press for provided the review copy.

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