Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
First seen as symbol of a bright new future, the structure has come to reflect the city’s wider problems.
No running, no music, no picnics, no groups of eight or more, no kite flying, no visits after midnight.
These might sound like the rules of some benign correctional facility for errant youth. They are, in fact, some of the 30 prohibitions that will govern visitors to London’s planned Garden Bridge. A subject of intense criticism for some time, the bridge, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, saw its star fall even farther on Friday, when yet more controls planned for the bridge were reported by the Guardian.* According to a planning document, Garden Bridge visitors would have their mobile phone signals tracked, while visitor hosts would be accredited with the right to demand names and addresses of suspected rule-breakers.
The revelation is a new low for the bridge plan—a plan that has already seen its share of lows. What at first seemed like it would be a charming bit of classically English horticultural whimsy is now coming across as a camouflaged aural panopticon, one in which Londoners will undergo even tighter control and pressure than elsewhere in this heavily monitored city. Some commentators have even asked, rather melodramatically, if the bridge is little more than a miniature police state in the making.
What makes this fall from grace so striking is that when the Garden Bridge plan first entered the public domain it caused a ripple of pleasure. Month by month, it has steadily descended from being perceived as a flagship for a new brighter London to becoming a symbol of the city’s wider problems. So how exactly did the Garden Bridge fall from grace?
First came the rising public costs
When plans first emerged in the media in 2013, the bridge sounded enchanting, if slightly superfluous. Leaving the Thames’ concrete banks, visitors would walk into a lush, mazy wilderness of mature trees and wildflowers, where giant lily pads suspended above the water would hum with bees and birdsong. When celebrity progenitor and advocate Joanna Lumley, a well-liked figure in Britain, described the bridge as a place of “peace and beauty and magic,” it was hard to argue.
There were clear flaws. Its location wasn’t the most useful place for a new Thames crossing, sandwiched as it would be between two bridges less than 10 minutes walk apart. Likewise, its absence of a cycle path—bikes would have to be wheeled instead—seemed a missed opportunity. Still, its £60 million ($90.5 million) price tag seemed reasonable given that it wouldn’t require public funding.
Since then, proposed costs have shot up and the government has stepped in. The £60 million figure is still there, but that’s now what the state is expected to contribute—half of it from London’s budget and half from the national treasury. The total budget is now at £175 million ($264 million), while maintaining the bridge would cost the city an additional £3.5 million ($5.3 million) annually.
During fat years, this might seem fair investment in tourism, but right now Britain is still in a tightening grip of tough austerity measures. Forking out that much money for a bridge that offered little or no infrastructural benefit—and in a city that both desperately needed affordable housing and was already burdened with functionless Olympic knickknacks—seemed oblivious to the point of callousness.
Then more problems piled up
Then came attacks on the design. Planting trees across the water meant damaging views of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the riverside. And when it emerged that less than half the bridge’s 6,000-square-meter (a little under 20,000-square-feet) surface would be planted, critics went to town.
The Guardian’s Olly Wainwright described the bridge’s design as that of “a copper-clad aircraft carrier, topped with a meagre green sprinkle.” For his colleague Rowan Moore, it was “heavy engineering garnished with urban parsley.” Bridge designer Alistair Lenczner described it as a “private garden platform pretending to be a bridge,” while my CityLab colleague Kriston Capps dismissed it as “amenity disguised as infrastructure.” Even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a wildlife charity, castigated the design for its absence of water capture and failure to meaningfully link up migration sites on either bank.
Next up in the line of problems came security, as the list of planned rules noted above seeped into the public domain. The oppressive sense of control these suggest is not a problem exclusive to the garden bridge, of course. As a country long-cited as having more security cameras per capita than anywhere else in the world, Britain and its institutions are as a rule surveillance mad.
But the discovery of how rigidly controlled the bridge would be chipped away at its proposed role as a place of escape. When you potentially have guards demanding your details for the crime of eating a sandwich, any sense of “peace and magic and beauty” surely evaporates fast. It didn’t help that this supposedly public space was designed to be closed monthly so as to hire it out for corporate events.
And now the bridge’s fate is unclear
With this lengthening list of flaws, people started asking how the bridge could have ever been commissioned. This led to the most damaging accusation of all: that the planning process had been rigged.
Chosen designer Thomas Heatherwick had previously designed just one bridge (compared with competitors who had designed up to 25). He was nonetheless given the highest scoring for “relevant design experience.” Could it have been, as the preceding link suggests, that Mayor Boris Johnson had unfairly tipped the scales after having his ear bent by Joanna Lumley, a family friend he’d known since childhood?
So now the plan hangs in the balance. The pressure seems to be doing some good. Last week, London’s share of the funding burden was slashed. The city will still put in £30 million, but £20 million of this will be returnable as a 50-year loan. This has proved enough to get one of the main candidates for next year’s mayoral elections back on board, and may be enough to push the plan through.
But the bad smell lingers. The Garden Bridge was supposed to be an icon for London, a demonstration of its creativity and innovation. Instead, it’s fast becoming a symbol of frivolous waste, skewed priorities, opaque planning, and alleged backroom deals by the elite. It’s no wonder the city has fallen out of love with it.
*Correction: A previous story described the planning document as being leaked to the Guardian.