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I-35W bridge seen through Henn. Ave. bridge

The fall of the I-35W bridge, seen here through the arches of the 10th Avenue bridge, has led to a University class on the river, the bridge, and the community.

Fallen bridge prompts contemplative class

In the wake of the I-35W tragedy, students look to the future

By Deane Morrison

August 31, 2007; updated September 12, 2007

As workers pick up the pieces of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi, people are setting their sights on the future. The questions raised by the tragedy cut deep into the collective consciousness about the river, the highways, the bridges, and the communities where they intersect. The University, situated less than a mile from the site, is taking an active role in guiding the discussion, and this fall it will bring students into the arena. A new class called "The river, the bridge, the community: Beyond the headlines of the I-35W bridge collapse" (Urban studies 3800) will tackle the big issues that must be addressed in order to rebuild the bridge and the surrounding area in a way that will stand the test of time. "There's a lot going on now about new bridge design, the politics of infrastructure, and memorials to victims," says course instructor Patrick Nunnally. "We're trying to slow the conversation down. We're setting our sights 10 years or more ahead, inquiring about how people may be thinking about the river or what they'll be doing then." As long as everything was going well, rivers and highways coexisted in happy disregard of each other. But since Aug. 1, people in the Twin Cities and elsewhere have become acutely aware of their dependence on an engineering structure every time they cross a river. Many have also started to think about the close proximity of major arteries like highways I-35 and I-94 and the shipping traffic on the Mississippi. Congestion in a time of crisis is one concern. "Rivers in urban areas and bridges pose unique challenges for emergency preparedness," says Nunnally, who is the coordinator for "River Life: The Mississippi and U", a program of the University's new Institute on the Environment. "The University is a leading institution in the Twin Cities for gathering people for emergency response." The University's closeness to major highways and a national river gives the U a unique advantage is grappling with the issues of the course. The evening of August 1, says Nunnally, that closeness took form in the persons of medical students who grabbed their bags and rushed to the scene, and in the numbers of injured who were taken to the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, for treatment.

Bridge and physics
Physics explains why many people lived through the fall of the I-35W bridge. To learn more, read "Why so many survived."

Headliners event: "Bridges Fall Down"
On October 4, join University of Minnesota geography department chair John Adams, as he discusses the broader implications of this Minnesota tragedy and explores possible solutions for the future. Tickets are $10. Reserve your space at the College of Continuing Education's first event of the 2007-08 Headliners season.

Planning for a new bridge must take into account "that giant institution" a mile away, Nunnally says. As the third most popular destination in the state, at least on weekdays, the University and its needs will influence decisions. For example, the University can tell planners how many people arrive every day by bicycle or bus, a statistic that bridge designers may want to figure into their blueprints.

"Rivers in urban areas and bridges pose unique challenges for emergency preparedness," says Nunnally.

The course will touch on engineering questions, such as the type of structure that will replace the fallen bridge and how interchanges will be designed. But in looking forward, it won't neglect the history of the Mississippi and its bridges in the Twin Cities area. "The Twin Cities have one of the world's most extensive arrays of concrete arch bridges," says Nunnally, naming the 10th Avenue, Cedar Avenue, and Franklin Avenue bridges as examples. With river traffic now halted in the vicinity of the collapse, barges and other boats that pass below the bridges and contribute to the economic life of the city and the state will be a hot topic. Students will also learn about the river as an ecosystem with its own plant and animal communities and physical attributes. Among the latter are the water currents near the I-35W bridge, which hampered rescue and recovery efforts following the collapse and continue to attract interest. The collapse itself may have affected water quality, another angle for scientific inquiry. Besides regular meetings, Nunnally will bring in professional speakers from inside and outside the U to shed light on how the significance of the I-35W bridge, the river, and the community has changed since the disaster. Anyone interested in the class can learn more by contacting Nunnally at or visit The course Web site.