Following months of discussions between Ithaca and the University and two sets of temporary fencing on the bridges near campus, the University announced Wednesday the architect who will design permanent suicide barriers for bridges on and near campus.
The architect, Nader Tehrani, is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a principal of the Boston design firm Office dA.
The University was not necessarily looking for an architect with bridge barrier experience, according to Gilbert Delgado, University architect. Instead, the University wanted someone who could “solve difficult questions creatively and beautifully,” Delgado said.
Tehrani and Office dA “seemed to address [problems relating to the barriers] most completely” of the firms interviewed, Delgado said.
In an academic setting, Tehrani “has focused on research surrounding materials, methods of aggregations, geometry and the advancement of digital fabrication,” according to Office dA’s website.
Tehrani has used “relatively humble materials” to come up with beautiful designs, Delgado said.
The barrier designs will be intended to allow for views of the gorges’ natural beauty, but the barriers will also be beautiful structures themselves, Delgado said.
“We’ll be beginning design in earnest sometime the week after next,” he said.
Tehrani was not available for comment on Wednesday night.
An August Common Council vote to allow temporary fencing on bridges to continue this school year included a deadline for the University to design the permanent barriers; by May 31, the University must present plans for permanent bridge barriers or remove the temporary fences.
Tehrani, in conjunction with the University and the City of Ithaca, will design permanent suicide barriers for at least seven bridges on and near campus, which will replace temporary black fences that are currently on the bridges.
Aug. 4: Council Votes to Continue Temporary Fences
The University installed the black fences this summer following the Aug. 4 vote by the Common Council, which allowed the fences to remain in place until May 31.
The University proposed the black fences partly in reaction to student and community complaints. The fences are shorter than the previous silver chain link fences, and unlike the previous fences, the new barriers also do not include wire on top and are less reflective, allowing for a better view of the gorges.
The original silver fences were installed during the spring semester in response to a string of three suicides from bridges near campus within a one-month period.
The temporary fences, as well as the permanent barriers that will soon be designed, are intended as “means restriction” — a strategy to stop suicides on bridges by physically preventing people from jumping into the gorges.
The Common Council voted unanimously to allow the temporary fences to remain so that the bridges would still have means restrictions until the permanent barriers are installed.
“The University made the case that while the immediate crisis may have passed, they still needed time to come up with more permanent solutions,” said Svante Myrick ’09 (D-4th Ward), explaining the council’s vote.
Myrick said he was convinced by evidence the University presented showing means restriction is effective at preventing suicides.
There was an “overwhelming consensus” from the local mental health community — including staff from Gannett, Cayuga Medical Center and other mental health personnel in the area — that means restriction works, Myrick said.
However, in advance of the Common Council vote, the rest of the Ithaca community was divided on whether the city should allow the temporary fences to remain. Some Ithacans were concerned that fences would spoil the natural beauty of the gorges, while others doubted the effectiveness of the barriers and thought they were “just a waste of time,” Myrick said.
But Myrick said that he, along with other council members, felt convinced that the council should give the University one year to come up with other, permanent barriers to suicides.
“We’re not voting on a final product here,” said Deborah Mohlenhoff (D-5th Ward) prior to the Common Council’s vote, according to The Cornell Chronicle. “We’re just voting for time.”
Fences May Have Saved a Life
During the council’s meeting to determine if it should allow the temporary fences, Alice Green, assistant dean of students for student support and EARS faculty advisor, spoke in favor of the fences, citing an incident earlier in the summer when the fences may have prevented a suicide.
According to The Ithaca Journal, Green told the council that after the temporary fences were installed in the spring semester, a young woman on the Stewart Avenue Bridge texted another person, saying she intended to take her life.
“The bridge fences may have created enough time for emergency personnel to respond, which may have saved a life,” Green said on Tuesday, recounting what she told the Common Council at its meeting.
“I was so grateful to the city and to Cornell for their swift action to erect the barriers,” Green told the Common Council this summer, according to The Journal.
Green declined on Tuesday to provide any additional details, citing the sensitive nature of the incident.
Following its discussions, the Common Council voted to allow the temporary fences to remain in place until May 31.
“We are very grateful to Mayor Carolyn Peterson and Common Council for their willingness to let us maintain barriers on the gorge bridges while we work together to explore permanent solutions,” said Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73, according to the Cornell Chronicle.
Ithaca Mayor Peterson was unavailable to comment on the bridge fence deliberations after multiple requests for interviews this week.
Design of Barriers to Begin Soon
The next step is designing permanent means restrictions — barriers to prevent suicides — for each bridge near campus.
The design process will be collaborative between Tehrani — the architect announced on Wednesday — the University, and the City of Ithaca. An Ithaca-Cornell “long term bridge means-restriction committee will be formed to lead this process,” John Gutenberger, Cornell’s director of community relations, stated in an e-mail.
The community will also be consulted, with public open houses and information sessions held throughout the process, Gutenberger said.
The architect and the means-restriction committee will examine the “design problem” for three different types of bridges: pedestrian, vehicular, and the stone bridge in Collegetown, Delgado said. Tehrani will design several alternative barriers for each bridge type, and the University and Ithaca will jointly agree on one design scheme for each of the three categories.
Barriers will be designed for either seven or eight bridges near campus. While Tehrani and the committee will examine all eight, “there are seven bridges that require the most focus,” Delgado said, because the seven have each seen suicides or attempted suicides.
The final designs could be nets, cables, or “things we haven’t even imagined yet,” Delgado said. “We’re trying to approach this with no preconceptions.”
Several other possible designs mentioned this summer in a Cornell Chronicle article, included “substructures and nets, modifications to remove climbing footholds from railings, ... landscaping, lighting and using see-through materials.”
The designs for each bridge will be submitted to the city by May for site plan approval, Delgado said.