All about cycling in the Netherlands
A park on legs is how some describe it. The exceptional new pedestrian and cycle bridge in ʼs-Hertogenbosch that connects the historic city centre to the Paleiskwartier (Palace Quarter). This is a former warehouse district that now houses the court building, a number of universities of applied science and agriculture and a lot of new homes and offices. It is a garden bridge that was inspired by the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and the High Line in New York City. Initially the bridge would be called “Ponte Pallazzo” to indicate its Italian roots, but that was considered too fancy and over the top for a Dutch bridge. So a name giving contest was held and the winning name was… simply the Dutch translation: Paleisbrug (Palace bridge). The ‘Palace’ in that name relates to the high court that can be found in the area, which the Dutch refer to with the equivalent of ‘Palace of Justice’.
The bridge across the railway line running from ʼs-Hertogenbosch further south had to be 250 metres long. Any bridge that long has the risk of becoming an unpleasant place. That is why the architects decided to make the bridge a ‘place’. They wanted the 10 metre wide bridge to become a destination in itself, an inviting place where people would go for a stroll and where they would sit to relax. That’s probably also why this garden bridge now even has free wifi.
The plants, shrubs and trees (there are 32 big boxes for full size trees integrated in this bridge) are what makes this bridge very special. The features of the bridge, its benches and these plants and trees are beautifully illuminated. This makes the bridge a very pleasant place to be, also at night. Where all the different plant areas would fit best was determined in a collaboration between the leading architect Mels Crouwel and the garden designer Piet Oudolf, who designed the planting scheme for the bridge. He was also involved in the planting design of the New York High line and The Gardens of Remembrance for the victims of the 9/11 attack. There are different planting schemes for different areas of the bridge and the plants, shrubs and trees were selected on different flowering periods, this will make the bridge special all year round.
The bridge has state of the art technology. Not only does it have a drainage and irrigation system, a solar thermal heating system was also installed to keep the bridge deck and stairs at a minimum temperature of 10 degrees Celsius in winter. This prevents the bridge from freezing without the need to spread salt, which would affect both the steel of the bridge as well as the plants. Even the drainage and irrigation system are heated by the thermal system, so there will also be no problems with rain water freezing in the drainage pipes. Because of the thermal heating system the bridge can also be used as a massive solar collector during summer. Another technical achievement was the design of the inclined lifts at either end of the bridge. There aren’t many inclined outdoor elevators yet, but the designers could learn from the experiences with the inclined lift of the Millennium Bridge in London. There too the doors were a particular concern as the lift arrangement has entrances on opposing sides of the car. The coupling of the doors is complex and needs to be tolerant to minor variations in the car position due to load in the car or weather conditions. But these problems were overcome and the lifts work nicely.
The opening of the bridge got a lot of positive attention, also abroad, but in the city of ʼs-Hertogenbosch the bridge caused a lot of criticism. Especially the price tag of 17.6 million Euro was thought too high by many. That there was a delay in the building time of almost two years didn’t help to get people enthusiastic either. Right at the beginning of the building process, it turned out that the main bridge parts over the railway line were not strong enough. Who had to pay to get this right had to be settled in court. The court case dragged for a long time, causing that delay. In the end the court decided that not the city but ProRail had to cover the costs of the reinforcements. People who are in favour of the garden bridge emphasise that ʼs-Hertogenbosch got a unique elevated park of 2,500sqm in size, worth every Euro the city had pay for it.
Although it is meant to be a bridge for walking and cycling, it feels more like a pedestrian bridge to me than a real cycle bridge. Mainly because there is no designated area for cycling on the bridge itself and you need to use the stairs or the elevators to get onto the 6 metre high bridge with your bicycle. The stairs do have a channel that you can use to roll your bicycle up, but the elevators are much more convenient. Many people can be seen pushing their bicycle across, most likely because there is no cycleway on the bridge. The Dutch are not really used to a shared space for walking and cycling and they may feel they would be cycling in pedestrian space, which is normally forbidden in this country. The fact that you have to zigzag between the plant beds on the bridge is also not helpful. But now that it has been in use for some time, I was surprised by the number of people who do use this bridge with their bicycle (riding or pushing it). There is an alternative route with proper cycling infrastructure (that is a longer distance but would require about the same time), but that route is not as pleasant as this bridge is. That is probably why so many people prefer this short-cut through the elevated park, even though that requires a bit of extra time to get through, because of the elevators or stairs and the shared space. It only shows that infrastructure also has to be inviting to use. And that is definitely what this bridge has become: an inviting place to be.
My video of the Paleisbrug in ʼs-Hertogenbosch