A bridge too far

Greenwash, nepotism, misuse of public funds, loss of iconic views and privatisation of public space – yes, the Garden Bridge is now going ahead, barring a miracle, after London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan failed to seize the final opportunity to consign this monstrous vanity project to the dustbin of history where it belongs and instead has now given it his formal approval.

Outside the capital, there’s a certain amount of bemusement as to why this project has provoked such fierce opposition. After all, it looks nice in the promotional images, doesn’t it? A new bridge with trees and shrubberies and no traffic – what’s not to love? Well, there’s plenty actually.

Even Mayor Khan expressed concern about the highly dubious procurement process. Thomas Heatherwick was suggested as the designer by Joanna Lumley, the driving force behind the bridge, back in 2004. The former London mayor met with Heatherwick several times to discuss a bridge before tendering had begun, and vastly experienced bridge engineers were then rejected in favour of a trendy young design studio.

The project has seen a dizzying escalation in costs, currently at £175m, including £60m capital and £3.5m annual maintenance from the public purse. How many real parks could this pay for? Notably, the maintenance charge will mainly cover security, rather than upkeep. Adding insult to injury, the entrances will have card readers ready to accept visitors’ donations.

Still, it’s a new park – that’s good, isn’t it? Well not exactly. It will be privately owned, and although open to the public (except at night) it’s not a public space. The draconian rules governing permitted activities on the bridge include no games, no cycling, no exercise except jogging, no gatherings and no music. Visitors will be monitored by CCTV, their mobile phone signals will be tracked, and security staff can search bags and confiscate anything they feel is unsuitable. Not quite a normal park, then.

And it’s not really a bridge, either. There will be queues to enter during peak times, estimated to be thousands. As a route from one side of the river to the other, it will be useless – too crowded to walk across easily, and off limits to cyclists. In any case, this stretch of the Thames is well served by river crossings already; four within a mile, the nearest just 500 metres away. Essential transport infrastructure, it is not.

So in my opinion neither use nor ornament, not needed or wanted; a tourist attraction at best, greenwashed to conceal the local environmental destruction it demands. Just 2,700 square metres of the bridge will be planted: less than half the size of a football pitch. For this, a beautiful avenue of 32 mature London planes will be felled, and existing planted borders concreted over to create a commercial area at the southside entrance where visitors can buy snacks and souvenirs while they queue to get in. For anyone who wants to stroll by the water, or sit and enjoy the wonderful river view surrounded by trees and plants, all the things the Garden Bridge is supposed to provide – well, you can already, day or night, without queues or intrusive security. But not for much longer.

A version of this article appeared in the July 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.

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