BIDDEFORD — A new pedestrian bridge linking the mill districts of Biddeford and Saco is seen as a step toward revitalizing both downtowns, and it’s revealing a view of the Saco River rarely seen by residents of the twin cities.

“The view up and down the river is terrific,” said Bob Hamblen, the Saco city planner who helped secure funding for the bridge. “It’s a spectacular combination of natural and man-made environment. I think of it as a canyon with brick walls. The pedestrian bridge just opens up the view in a way that only a small percentage of the residents of Biddeford and Saco have ever seen.”

The bridge opened to pedestrians this month with little fanfare. A grand-opening celebration is being planned for May 2. The span – long planned as part of the revitalization of the mill districts and downtowns – also connects the river walks in both cities.

A simple structure that replaced a steam-pipe span, the bridge is seen by local officials as an important link between the communities, and part of the rejuvenation that has gained momentum in both downtowns in the past decade. Cavernous textile mill buildings that once employed thousands of workers are being transformed into housing, business centers, hotels and restaurants.

Until recently, views of the river wending and rushing between the mills were seen only by workers or people who have moved into renovated buildings. The bridge sits over a curve in the river, revealing a sweeping upstream view of a waterfall surrounded by brick mill buildings. Looking downstream, the span offers a view of the river as it swirls under the vehicle bridge linking the cities’ main streets and flows to open water.

The yet-to-be-named pedestrian crossing also is the latest example of efforts by Maine’s former mill cities to bring people and development opportunities back to once-thriving industrial riverfronts. The mills that once made textiles, paper or lumber fueled local economies, but cut off residents from the water. Now, with that industrial activity gone and water quality improved, many see the rivers as underutilized assets for recreation and redevelopment.

Westbrook plans to reconnect with the Presumpscot River by creating a boat launch and kayaking opportunities in its downtown. Bangor is bringing people to the banks of the Penobscot River with waterfront concerts. And a key feature of the riverfront master plan in Lewiston and Auburn is the effort to make the area along the Androscoggin River more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists.

“The riverfront is something people are drawn to,” said Hamblen, who believes the pedestrian bridge creates an opportunity to connect the two cities while promoting the local economy and outdoor activities.

In Biddeford and Saco, the former mills have been jumping-off points for new development in the cities, which have a combined population of around 40,000.

A Kennebunkport developer has proposed a $50 million project for the former Lincoln Mill in Biddeford that would renovate its brick building, which was built in 1850, and add a hotel and apartments, a 150-seat restaurant, a higher-end 65-seat restaurant and a 5,000-square-foot meeting space. Nearby, a Portland development company is planning to invest $15 million to renovate a mill building into a housing complex.

The former Pepperell Mill Campus in Biddeford is being transformed into Pepperell Center, the largest mixed-use development project in York County, with an anticipated total investment by its developer of more than $10 million over two years. Several business tenants already have moved in, including Impact Fitness, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Banded Horn Brewing Co., Maine Pie Co., Consumer Real Estate Finance Co., Hands Free Vehicle Technologies and clothing company Angelrox. Portland Pie Co. is expected to open a 130-seat restaurant in the center in January.

On Saco Island, developers are planning to convert a quarter million square feet of mill space into housing and retail use.

The new pedestrian bridge was funded by a $426,000 grant from the Maine Department of Transportation’s Quality Communities Program. Biddeford and Saco jointly applied for the state funding.

The pedestrian bridge is an important step in the development of the Biddeford RiverWalk, which has been talked about for decades but didn’t start taking shape until the mill district master plan was completed in 2009, said Greg Tansley, the Biddeford city planner. Projected to take several years to complete, the RiverWalk will take pedestrians through the mill district from Mechanics Park to Diamond Match Park.

Planning for the next phase of the project will begin this winter, Tansley said.

On the Saco side of the river, the river walk has been extended in the past couple of years to include a brick walkway near the pedestrian bridge and a path that loops around the mill buildings.

All of this is good for the twin cities and draws attention to the area both as a business center and entertainment destination, said Craig Pendleton, director of the Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce. The cities launched a joint branding campaign in 2013 to market both sides of the river for economic redevelopment and tourism.

“As the mill district begins to thrive more and more, it has become the heart of the two cities,” Pendleton said. “It’s a place people have been going to do business and enjoy themselves. This is yet another feature that we can promote for people to come see.”

Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant said the bridge exemplifies the excitement around the rebirth of the mill district and main streets.

“It’s so symbolic of what’s happening between Biddeford and Saco,” he said. “It shows the cooperation between the cities. In essence, we’re one community with two cities.”

Scott Joslin, general manager of the Pepperell Mill Campus in Biddeford, said the pedestrian bridge provides “great connectivity” between the places where people live and work and public transportation. Amtrak stops at the Saco Transportation Center, as do local and commuter buses. And it all comes with a stunning view of the river.

“I was flabbergasted when I got to the middle of the bridge,” he said. “It’s elevated and looks down on the rapids. It’s great.”

Pendleton hopes the bridge will be named by the cities in Biddeford and Saco before the opening celebration in May. So far, most of the suggestions have centered on the theme of unity or paying tribute to mill workers.

“We think it’s time to recognize our past and look toward the future,” Pendleton said.

The placement of the bridge across the river, and preparations to open it this month, were closely watched by people who live and work in the North Dam Mill, the building closest to the Biddeford side of the bridge.

Noreen Rochester watched the progress from the office of her matchmaking business, then finally walked across the bridge last weekend with her family on their way to exploring Saco’s Main Street.

“It’s incredible,” she said. “They’re putting two really wonderful communities together.”

Kim Lousier, who lives and works at North Dam Mill, said she and her roommate will use the bridge to go to the farmers market and the Run of the Mill restaurant in Saco. She also sees the bridge as another way to join the twin cities and bring attention to the rapidly changing area.

“This area could easily become a powerhouse and compete with Portland. And this is what Portland is missing,” she said, pointing to the bridge she calls beautiful and serene. “There is something very natural about it being there.”