On a walk to work across the Brooklyn Bridge more than a decade ago, designer Scott Francisco started thinking about the wood under his feet—and recognized that it had come from a rainforest. “I knew it was tropical hardwood,” he says. “So it immediately raised these questions about sustainability in the city and what our impacts are. I thought, what if this could be flipped around, and rather than being about consumption and negative impact at a distance, that it could be turned into something that had a positive impact.”
The planks on the iconic bridge, which have to be replaced every few decades, are due for a replacement now. In a project called Brooklyn Bridge Forest, Francisco and his collaborators suggest that the bridge should be refurbished with wood that can help keep tropical forests standing. The team, which won a new competition called Reimagining the Brooklyn Bridge, proposes that the 20,000 new planks that are needed should come from a “partner forest” near community in Guatemala, called Uaxactun, that protects around 200,000 acres of rainforest.
“It’s one of the largest intact rainforests left in Central America,” he says. “One of the linchpins of their model is their ability to sell wood that is sustainably harvested from their forest. They have a management plan which is very rigorous. For example, they harvest about one tree per ace every 40 years. That kind of yield is really critical to ensuring the sustainability. Sustainability means if I come back to the forest five years, 10 years, 100 years later, does it still thrive? Does it still look intact? And does it still have all of the ecological services that it would have originally had to look the same as it did when I started this work?”
While it might seem like it would be better to source wood from local forests—and avoid the rainforest completely—Francisco argues that it’s important to partner with a distant forest. “For an infrastructure this prominent in the city, with its history and its global significance, it’s an opportunity to reference the fact that the city is in fact having these impacts of distance,” he says. “In many cases, those impacts are negative. It’s time that the city takes responsibility for the global nature of its networks.”
For the Guatemalan forest, having a partner like the City of New York can help ensure that the forest survives, even as others nearby are degraded or deforested. The city could work with Uaxactun to supply other needed wood, such as for park benches, and the model could serve as an example for other cities to partner with similar communities. “The scalability of this is really, really important,” he says. “This forest community is one of thousands of forest communities around the world who are looking for ways to protect their forest and provide a livelihood for their families and hang on to their land.” Many are struggling to maintain communities as people move to cities for economic reasons. Swaths of forest are also being cleared for farming and mining. “The pressures are tremendous on forests and forest communities,” he says.
The design also rethinks the experience of crossing the 137-year-old bridge. The lower deck, which was originally used for horse-drawn carriages, then a cable trolley, and then a streetcar before being dedicated to cars, would add new bike lanes. At each end of the bridge, new “micro-forests” would restore native biodiversity and add shade. On the upper level, new bike paths at the side would make it easier to bike when the bridge is crowded with pedestrians. Each new plank would be sponsored by someone, at a cost ranging from perhaps $400 to $5,000, to crowdfund the project as the city deals with a fiscal crisis.
The team has been in talks with city officials, and has hopes that the first stage of the project—converting car lanes to bike lanes on the lower part of the bridge, and planting the micro-forests—could happen before the end of the current mayor’s term next year.
Correction: We’ve updated this article to note that the bridge design would require 20,000 planks, not 11,000, and to add the name of the Guatemalan community that manages the forest.