June 29, 2011

Residents voice views on installing nets on city bridges

Henry Gerson
Robert Barker/University Photography
Dr. Henry Gerson, chair of the psychiatry department at Cayuga Medical Center, speaks in support of nets on city bridges.

Tompkins County residents voiced their opinions June 28 about whether the city of Ithaca should allow Cornell to install nets under three city-owned bridges on and adjacent to campus.

An overwhelming majority of the people who spoke supported the nets. Thirty-six were in favor, five against, at a joint meeting of the city's Common Council and the Board of Public Works.

"I encourage everyone to support the nets," said Helen Kuveke, who witnessed a woman jump off a Stewart Avenue bridge four years ago. "They are the perfect compromise between saving lives and putting up something that's not aesthetically troubling."

Those in favor said the nets would make it more difficult for suicidal individuals to act on their thoughts; reduce the risk of trauma to witnesses, family and friends; and decrease the risk of harm to rescue personnel. Several studies have demonstrated that nets significantly reduce or eliminate jumping suicides at those locations, mental health professionals said.

Cornell has requested the city's permission to install nets as a suicide prevention measure under two Stewart Avenue bridges and the Thurston Avenue Bridge. Cornell will bear the estimated $1 million-per-bridge installation cost, university officials have said.

But first the city's Planning and Development Board must approve the designs, followed by the Board of Public Works and Common Council. A decision is unlikely to come before September.

At the meeting, speakers opposing the nets said people deterred from jumping off the bridges would find other places to jump or commit suicide in some other way, and that crisis telephones and signage on bridges would save more lives than nets.

Mayor Carolyn Peterson closed the meeting by saying she would plan another joint session of the Common Council and the Board of Public Works to continue to explore the issue.

University officials have also sought permission to install nets under or along four Cornell-owned bridges: the Suspension Bridge, Beebe Dam Bridge, Stone Arch Bridge and Trolley Bridge. Those designs must be approved only by the planning board before installation can begin.

Over the past four decades, the Ithaca community has debated how to address the risk of suicides from East Hill bridges. Since 1990, 29 people have jumped from the bridges, including three who survived the fall and are still alive. Half of Cornell student suicides during this time involved gorge jumps.

Cornell has worked for about a year and a half to address the issues and develop designs with input from the campus and Ithaca communities. The university has held a dozen forums on and off campus for public comment and solicits feedback at a website http://meansrestrictionstudy.fs.cornell.edu/ that outlines the nets project. University officials also have been consulting with fire and rescue professionals, city public works and planning officials, and members of the Common Council and planning board.

The proposed designs are a direct response to concerns about obstructing bridge views, said University Architect Gilbert Delgado. The proposed nets are made of low-visibility tensile steel mesh, which provide unobstructed views and preserve the aesthetic character of the bridges and their settings, he said.

The nets are similar to those approved for San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and those installed in Bern, Switzerland. There have been no bridge suicides or rescues since the first of the Swiss nets was installed in 1999, Delgado added.

Means restriction on bridges is the missing link in Cornell's comprehensive approach to suicide prevention, said Tim Marchell, Cornell's director of mental health initiatives. Most of the suicide prevention efforts are focused on intervention and outreach. For example, since 2010, the university has funded additional counseling staff and extended its Notice and Respond program to help faculty, staff and students identify and help those in distress. Meanwhile, the Faculty Senate is reviewing the academic calendar to see if changes to exam schedules and additional breaks can help reduce student stress, Marchell said.