Bridging the Gap Between River and Community: The Pedestrian Bridge

The highway 1 pedestrian bridge connects the east and west banks of the San Lorenzo River at the northernmost point of the Santa Cruz Riverwalk. Photo courtesy and © of Mark Yashinsky.
The Highway 1 Pedestrian Bridge connects the east and west banks of the San Lorenzo River at the northernmost point of the Santa Cruz Riverwalk. Photo courtesy of and © Mark Yashinsky.

Many towns have rivers running through them. Often, the river has been integrated into urban planning and is a vital resource used and loved by the community. In some towns, however, the rivers presence has been marginalized, and people are not really aware of their local river nor do they interact with it. In these cases, the health of the river ecosystems and the entire watershed may also have been compromised. Many towns and cities in the latter case are now working hard to revitalize their rivers, improve watershed health, and help local people make a personal connection to their river.

In Connecticut, Riverfront Recapture has been working since 1980 to integrate the Connecticut River into the lives of people living in Hartford and East Hartford. In Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership is trying to create a network of vibrant “River Towns” up and down the Susquehanna River that are actively engaged with the river.

In the city of Santa Cruz, California, the San Lorenzo River has been largely cut off from the people due to large levees built in the 1950s for flood control. Since 2013 the Coastal Watershed Council has been working to make the San Lorenzo River a healthier watershed that is used and loved by it’s surrounding community.

The Highway 1 Pedestrian Bridge is a tangible example of what a community can do to increase access and enjoyment of an urban river. Before the Pedestrian Bridge was built it was difficult for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the northern section of the urban river. It is illegal to take a bike on the Highway 1 overpass, so river-goers would have to travel down to Water Street to cross.

 The Highway 1 bridge travels over the San Lorenzo River. Here, it is illegal for pedestrians or bikes to cross the river. Photo courtesy and © of Coastal Watershed Council.
The Highway 1 bridge travels over the San Lorenzo River. On the highway, it is illegal for pedestrians or bikes to cross the river. Photo courtesy of and © Coastal Watershed Council.

These issues were addressed when the City of Santa Cruz and the local community came together and approved the the San Lorenzo Urban River Plan in 2003. The plan’s overarching goal was to restore native plants and to enhance fish and wildlife habitat in and along the river. They also hoped to create a space to enjoy the river’s natural beauty without compromising the needed levee structures. The pedestrian bridge and the Santa Cruz Riverwalk (the two-mile long City Park on the top of the levees) were created from this plan.

The new pedestrian bridge is lowered into place in 2009. Photo courtesy and © of Syblon Reid General Engineering Contractors.
The new Pedestrian Bridge is lowered into place in 2009. Photo courtesy of and © Syblon Reid General Engineering Contractors.

The construction of the public Pedestrian Bridge was a major success for the city. In addition, the project received the American Public Works Association Monterey Bay Chapter 2010 Project of the Year Award. The bridge is 270 feet long, and is a great place to pause and observe the river meandering upstream and commuters traveling downstream.

A major goal of the San Lorenzo Urban River Plan was to “create a unique sense of space, but not to compete with the river’s natural beauty or impede the functionality of the levees.” The project’s authors pushed for interpretive signs, educational material surrounding the river and increased public awareness regarding the San Lorenzo River. The report gathered information from walking tours, public meetings, and from the experiences of similar interpretive trail projects that have proven to be successful.

Envisioning The River’s Future

Today the Santa Cruz Riverwalk is frequented by families, cyclists, joggers, and parents gently pushing their children along in strollers. It’s one of the best transportation corridors in Santa Cruz and it seems that every day more people are coming to spend time along the San Lorenzo River. However, many people still don’t think of visiting the river and many aren’t sure if it is safe.

Walking, biking and other recreational activities are popular on the Santa Cruz Riverwalk. Photo courtesy and © of Crystal Birns Photography.
Walking, biking and other recreational activities are popular on the Santa Cruz Riverwalk. Photos courtesy of and © Crystal Birns Photography.

Once transformed, the safe inviting feel and aesthetics of the Santa Cruz Riverwalk draws us in and reminds us why this town came to be here in the first place. When we spend time along the river, it transforms us, taking us back to when we first connected to nature as a child. Now lets help connect our own children to nature – just like we did.

 Photo courtesy and © of Crystal Birns Photography.
Photo courtesy of and © Crystal Birns Photography.

In 2013, the Coastal Watershed Council founded the San Lorenzo River Alliance, a diverse coalition of organizations with expertise in water, business, government, and arts: this group works every day to reconnect a healthy watershed to a vibrant community. So far, the Coastal Watershed Council and San Lorenzo River Alliance have gathered community input, activated prior commitments from local leaders, and enhanced habitat and recreational opportunities along the river.

The San Lorenzo River Alliance was formed in December 2013 to revitalize the San Lorenzo River to a healthy watershed connected to a vibrant community in Santa Cruz.
The San Lorenzo River Alliance was formed in December 2013 to revitalize the San Lorenzo River to a healthy watershed connected to a vibrant community in Santa Cruz.

Learn more about the work of the Coastal Watershed Council and the San Lorenzo River Alliance here.

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the San Lorenzo River Tour by the Coastal Watershed Council. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

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Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store
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About The Author

Coastal Watershed Council

The Coastal Watershed Council is a nonprofit organization formed in 1995 in response to the declining health of watersheds in the Monterey Bay region. Our mission is to preserve and protect coastal watersheds through community stewardship, education and monitoring.

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1 Comment

  1. Andy Neher

    Our San Lorenzo River is looking up. But we have a long way to go. Many other towns have done much better developing their river as a beautiful and useful part of the community. A good example is San Luis Obispo where people love to walk along the river or comfortably sit and have coffee or lunch or just talk or relax in lovely surroundings, and children can play safely. In contrast, the river banks in Santa Cruz are mostly neglected and in bad shape and attract few ;locals, much less tourists. Instead of being a lovely, functional attraction, our river is mostly a blot on our town.

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