Piling Canada

Helping Build Bridges to Prosperity

Footbridges over otherwise impassable rivers give isolated communities access to health care, education and markets
Written by Barb Feldman
March 2015

Footbridges over otherwise impassable rivers give isolated communities access to health care, education and markets

In 2001, Ken Frantz happened to see a photo in National Geographic of men dangling precariously from ropes that they were using to pull each other across a wide, high gap in a bridge across the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia. Frantz, who owned a construction company, knew how to build and believed he could help. He persuaded family, friends and his Rotary club to donate time, money and materials, and within three months the two sides of the centuries-old stone span, which had been deliberately destroyed in World War II to stop the advance of Italian troops, had been reconnected.

The success of this first project inspired Frantz to found Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), a non-profit dedicated to building footbridges over otherwise impassable rivers to give isolated communities safer access to health care, education and markets. Both B2P’s basic cable-suspended bridge design and its community-participation and teaching model were inspired by and adapted from programs begun by the Swiss development agency Helvetas (now HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation), which began its own community footbridge-building programs in the 1980s. Since 2008, B2P has also been developing its own safe, replicable and locally viable suspension bridge design alternatives.

Reliable and safe river crossings lead to more school enrolment, health care treatment, women’s employment and local business 
“In rural areas, people largely live in a walking world – so when a river swells, a walk to school or work or the doctor can become life-threatening without a bridge to cross,” said Abbie Noriega, B2P’s director of development. “We’ve seen through evaluation efforts that when a community gains access to reliable and safe river crossings with a footbridge, there’s a 12 per cent increase in school enrolment, a 24 per cent increase in health care treatment, an 18 per cent increase in employment for women and a 15 per cent increase in local business.”

Flatiron Construction Corporation has been one of more than 20 corporations providing funding, materials, innovative design and volunteer project management and labour to B2P. Since 2009, the company has sponsored more than 60 of its engineers, supervisors, labourers and support staff to travel to projects in rural El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua as part of bridge-building teams and gets four applications from its employees for every available spot. Flatiron undertakes three or four projects a year, and has pledged to construct at least 12 footbridges globally by 2017. 

Rick Morrison was involved in the first two Flatiron/B2P joint-venture bridge projects in Honduras and Guatemala, acting in Honduras as project manager for an eight-person team. The Flatiron team began by participating in constructability reviews and providing input for construction methods, based in part on what donated materials they’d have to work with.

“There’s quite a large learning curve, not really knowing what we were getting into,” said Morrison, and overall planning and logistics presented some of the biggest challenges. “Just getting all the building materials and tools we used down to Honduras and planning for all the people to have places to stay [was problematic].”

When the team arrived at the site, the foundation had already been dug and bridge abutments already built by B2P and local people, says Morrison.

“We erected the bridge from that foundation,” he said. The bridge itself was built with fairly simple methods and equipment, “using techniques not typically done on construction sites anymore but that would be common down in that part of the world,” such as using ropes and pulleys to erect the towers. Without the “luxury” of a crane, for example, the team built a moving platform that rode on the suspension cables to install the deck hangers.


Rafael Hammett is another Flatiron engineer and project manager whose team built a 67-metre footbridge in 2009 to serve three remote communities of about 2,000 people in a mountainous region of Nicaragua. Hammett’s team of 11 included volunteers from Flatiron, Turner Construction Company and E.E. Cruz, all HOCHTIEF employees.

A standard footbridge design will be modified by B2P and senior people at Flatiron, Hammett says, depending on the width of the river and where the foundations can be placed. These are often spread footings since ground and subsurface conditions and water table levels may be unknown. The steel towers are sized up or down based on the span length, and for his project they were made by a local fabricator.

Running into surprises
Hammett’s team worked from sunup to sundown every day but one during their two weeks on-site. They built two foundations on either side of the river.

“One for the main tower and one for the cable that’s set back about 100 feet from the tower foundation,” he said. “They’re both concrete footings that are buried, rebar-caged, six to 10 feet deep by about 15 to 20 feet wide, all hand-dug, hand-placed, concrete placed by buckets by hand – about the hardest work you could imagine.” All of that was exacerbated by extreme heat, high humidity and plenty of insects.

The ingenuity of the local workers often impressed Hammett.

“You can only plan so much,” he said. “When you get there, it’s not like The Home Depot’s next door – you run into a lot of surprises and you just make it work with what you have.”

In his case, the team had a small generator, a few power tools and a concrete mixer. He recalled an instance when “the foreman and a local guy almost built a crane system out of sticks that spread across the rebar cage,” allowing the heavy, awkward cage to be safely picked up, positioned and dropped into place. Once the bridge was finished, it was a local mason who devised the long hook made of rebar to shift the hangers around to level the deck.

“We ultimately want to work ourselves out of a job in a particular region by creating local capacity,” said Noriega, noting that local involvement in the planning, construction and ultimately monitoring and maintenance is key to the long-term feasibility of each bridge B2P builds. To date, the organization has built more than 160 bridges. It has about 200 potential projects under consideration at any given time.

“For each new project we work with local communities, governments and partner non-profits to identify which communities have the largest bridge needs and capacity to invest in the process [with materials, labour, community engagement and training],” said Noriega. “It’s always amazing to see how people with very little access to resources will rally around the project and come together to make something really wonderful happen. People from completely different backgrounds, completely different cultures – our university teams, our corporate teams and members of the local community – can all come together to complete a bridge in a week. That’s just stunning and always surprising no matter how many times it happens.”

Hammett echoes the sentiment, and says that working with B2P was an extremely rewarding experience on a personal level.

“To put yourself in a completely different place than what you’re comfortable with and learn about other cultures, and give them the great gift of a bridge that makes a difference for their lives – working with Bridges to Prosperity was one of the highlights of my life,” he said. “But it’s more than that. They’re learning how to build things and we’re learning from them, too.”

{fastsocialshare} 🍁

Category: Projects

About Us

Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.

Sign Up

Submit your email to receive our e-newsletter.