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.
The price is reasonable, the design is practical, and the link is one the city genuinely needs.
When a proposal for a new bridge across the Thames was launched in London this week, many were taken aback. The bridge would span the river not in Central London but in the city’s Eastern Docklands and be open only to pedestrians and cyclists but capable of allowing tall ships to pass through. But the real surprise element is that, contrary to expectations developed over the past few years, the proposal is actually great.
London has fielded some pretty silly bridge proposals recently. First there was the Garden Bridge, a plan for a park strung across the river that initially sounded delightful but whose charm soon faded. Then there was the competition to design a pedestrian bridge to cross the Thames near the new U.S. embassy, which is currently under construction. The competition attracted a host of designs so flashy that one studio was able to enter a spoof concept without standing out as notably worse. All this happened following the relative failure of the Emirates Air Line, a gondola that crosses the river at a poorly chosen point in East London where daily use has been extremely low.
Taken against this backdrop, the new bridge plan comes as a refreshing shock. Its projected cost of £88 million seems like a reasonable value, and the design is eye-catching but practical. Above all, it’s a link that London genuinely needs, in a place where it genuinely needs it.
At present, East London is bridge-free. Road and rail tunnels (and that gondola) traverse the Thames, of course, but in the long stretch between Tower Bridge and the Dartford Crossing there’s no surface connection between the banks. Back in the days, when the Thames’ eastern reaches were taken up with busy docks, this was a good thing, because ships needed unimpeded access to the quayside. The dock warehouses shut down long ago, however, to be replaced by skyscrapers, offices, and homes.
Nowadays, the new bridge’s planned location is becoming one of London’s busiest areas, sandwiched between the new(ish) business district at Canary Wharf and the southern bank’s Canada Water, where thousands more homes will be built in the near future. Residents can already move from one side of the river to the other via the Underground or (with a small detour) via a road tunnel. For pedestrians and cyclists, however, the riverbanks remain un-bridged and inaccessible in places—a major planning failure.
The new plan, put together by reForm Architects and Elliot Wood Engineers, rectifies this oversight with some elegance. Partly supported by two slanting masts strung with cables, it somewhat resembles two classic African-style harps joined end-to-end across the water. Visually, this design suits an area where most buildings are modern, but those masts are there for a reason. The bridge’s central span can be pivoted upwards by hydraulic dams, enabling it to open for tall ships then return to normal within four minutes. This makes it an attractive counterpart to Tower Bridge, which has been doing the same thing since 1894.
You can see how the new Rotherhithe Bridge would work in the video below:
So far, reactions to the bridge plan have been very positive, with London’s outgoing Mayor Boris Johnson voicing his provisional support. That encouragement doesn’t mean the bridge is guaranteed to get built. A public consultation is needed, and likewise a competition inviting alternative designs; the latter is especially important following complaints about the murky procurement process that resulted in the Garden Bridge’s official acceptance.
But while the bridge project’s public life is still fresh, there are reasons to be cheerful. At least the plan shows that Londoners can indeed be offered useful, sensible infrastructure solutions that they actually seem to like.