Iowa State students provide landscape expertise in proposed Mississippi River bridge project

Landscape architecture students at workshop

Iowa State landscape architecture students sketch ideas for the proposed Bison Bridge over the Mississippi River. Photo provided by Bison Bridge Foundation.

AMES, Iowa — Iowa State University landscape architecture students are involved in what could one day be the longest wildlife bridge in the world.

The Bison Bridge Project is an effort to repurpose the I-80 Mississippi River Bridge connecting Iowa and Illinois (from Le Claire, Iowa, to Rapids City, Illinois), rather than demolishing it.

One “lane” is proposed to be retrofitted into a wildlife crossing, including a small herd of American bison that the Bison Bridge Foundation plans to steward. The other lane would be converted into a pedestrian viewing area and park safely distanced from the wildlife. That side would include a visitors’ center, interpretive signage and viewing points of the wildlife crossing and river valley. The ultimate goal is to one day secure national park status.

The bridge was built in 1967. It faces costly maintenance, the existing design doesn’t meet current standards and the bridge is seeing increased traffic and in turn increased vehicle crashes.

The Illinois Department of Transportation, Iowa Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration are studying possibilities for the bridge’s future. The study is expected to be completed in late 2023.

Tom Neppl, associate professor of practice in landscape architecture, teaches an ecological design course in the spring, in which students learn about landscape systems, ecological regions, and native species of wildlife and plants. Neppl asked Chad Pregracke, president and founder of Living Lands and Waters and leader of the Bison Bridge Project, to come talk to his students about the project. Pregracke was impressed with the students and wanted to get them involved.

“Due to COVID, our landscape architecture program has had limited travel opportunities the past few semesters,” Neppl said of the Savanna Studio, which takes sophomore landscape architecture students on six weeks of travel across the savanna region of the U.S. “That’s why I felt it was important to take this group. They hadn’t had a chance to get out in the field as much as possible.”

Fresh minds, ideas

In June, the ISU students, as well as landscape architecture students from the University of Illinois, headed to the Quad Cities for a day-long workshop to brainstorm landscape design ideas for the proposed bridge.

“I wanted young, fresh minds,” Pregracke said. “It was amazing what these students came up with in 45 minutes. What if they had 45 days?”

The students sketched several ideas for the professionals to consider, including walkway placement to account for lack of shade and placing walkways at different levels for various types of users.

“People who live around there who may just want to cross the bridge quickly, they could have a path so they don’t run into people who are there to enjoy the experience,” said Peter Graham, senior in landscape architecture from Edina, Minnesota.

Graham hopes to stay involved as the project moves forward, whether through another class or an internship. Neppl also sees opportunities for future design studios to partner with communities in the area to plan bicycle path connections, multi-use trails and community design elements.

“It’s important for the general public to know that the project is about people, even though the bison is the selling point,” Graham said. “This would be more enjoyable than a typical pedestrian path on a new bridge.”

During a semester, landscape architecture students typically complete three or four projects, each lasting four to five weeks.

“In practice, four to five weeks is barely getting started,” Neppl said. “The pace of this project is certainly slower, something that students don’t really get the chance to fully experience as a student in studio.”

“For our students it feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because it’s so unique and bold.”