In a city surrounded by water, bridges and ferries set the pace, especially in a metropolis like New York City. Artist Nancy Nowacek wants to offer a shortcut across the water – with the installation of a crowdfunded, temporary floating bridge.

If you take the East River Ferry from Southern Manhattan over to Governors Island, it’s hard to imagine a time when it was possible to reach the small, pedestrian-only island on foot.

Granted, it was more than 100 years ago when farmers were able to move their herds across the Buttermilk Channel at low tide – a practice impressively described by author Walt Whitman.

Inspired by today’s streams of traffic and the abundance of obstacles throughout the city, artist Nancy Nowacek remembered Whitman’s essay. She dreamt up a public pathway that would allow present-day New Yorkers to reach the small island on foot: the “Citizen Bridge”.

Citizen Bridge is a temporary floating Bridge in New York
Imagine taking a walk over the river.
Photo: Nancy Nowacek

Modular floating public space

Nowacek’s temporary, floating pathway would bridge the water between Brooklyn and Governors Island, starting at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal and ending at Yankee Pier on Governors Island, stretching approximately 1,400 feet.

Importantly, the concept allows components to be assembled using basic construction techniques, maintaining modular capabilities. The design of the construction features plywood decking and a buoyancy system. A guard rail lines the sides of the bridge to ensure pedestrian safety.

Since Nowacek’s original research, Citizen Bridge has been through a range of different prototypes and designs. The artist and her team have experimented with a variety of materials and a range of design possibilities. During this time, the concerns surrounding waterway traffic, natural ecology, and safety have been taken into account. Eventually, the seventh prototype, boldly named “Superblock”, was designed and built.

The project’s current phase calls for a proof-of-concept span. This will deepen understandings of operations, logistics, and safety systems. It has also given Nowacek’s team the chance to start exploring integrated anchorage systems for the East River tide.

Like a carpet on water

“The toughest obstacle has been time,” admits Nowacek, who brings with her a passion for swimming and water. “When I started this project, I didn’t think that four and a half years down the line I would still be working towards the vision.

The unique part of Citizen Bridge is that it won’t arch across the river like a normal bridge. Instead, it will lay flat on the water. “There is something very powerful about standing on the water and being in conversation with it,” Nowacek points out.

“In standing very close to the surface of water, there is a kind of equal relationship where we are each responding to the other,” the artist explains. Her Citizen Bridge, she hopes, will contribute to bringing New Yorkers back in touch with the waterways of their own city.

Citizen Bridge in New York
A trial run with a postcard backdrop.
Photo: Nancy Nowacek

Crowdfunding through Kickstarter

Although still a work in progress, Citizen Bridge has had quite some impact: On the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, more than 500 supporters pledged a total of $25,000 to help realize the idea.

By now, various architects, designers and artists are working on the project. “In the end, Citizen Bridge is about the collective power of citizens,” explains Nowacek. “Posing questions to other people and sharing ideas helped the project move from nothing to something.”

Through public involvement and volunteers, the project has developed and taken shape naturally. “The reason I make art is to encounter other people around me. To not only meet other people, but to learn from them.”

Re-imagining New York as a maritime city

By building a simple platform structure to sit on the surface of the water, a reactionary experience will be created with the bridge, where one is interacting more closely with the water.

Through repetition, the use of the Citizen Bridge over Buttermilk Channel will invite New Yorkers to not only experience the bridge, but to think about themselves in relation to water and land.

“It will completely change the way people look at the water. It will change what people think is possible for themselves and their city,” promises Nowacek.

She hopes this will lead to a cultural shift, re-imagining New York City as a maritime city and sparking more creative ideas for the city’s waterways. The project may have been born on the shores of Brooklyn, but is not exclusive to New York City.

statue of liberty and the New York skyline
Manhattan is surrounded by water and in need of new mobility options.
Photo: Getty Images / Johner Images

An international vision

Getting in touch with water – similar art projects have been popping up internationally. Christo’s “Floating Piers” in Italy, for example, let visitors walk across Lake Iseo, just above the surface.

For 16 days between June and July of 2016, 100,000 square meters of shimmering yellow fabric, carried by a modular floating system, allowed visitors to walk from Sulzano to Monte Isola and to the island of San Paolo.

Both the Citizen Bridge and the Floating Piers bring people face-to-face with their waterways, allowing citizens to experience a new kind of public space.

However, Citizen Bridge has a built-in time limit: Due to commercial traffic on the river, the bridge can only be installed for a 24-hour span. However, Nowacek aims for the project to return year-after-year.

Nancy Nowacek is an artist that creates task-based encounters between bodies, things, and the space around them. Her Citizen Bridge between Brooklyn and Governors Island will produce a temporary floating public space for New Yorkers to enjoy. For more information visit the website, or follow the project on Facebook or Twitter.