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.
Good riddance to London’s age of fanciful, functionless infrastructure.
It’s over. After years of debate and funding battles, London’s proposed Garden Bridge has finally received what must surely be its death sentence. London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced Friday that the city would not cover the project’s maintenance costs, which were a precondition for its approval but would have placed an open-ended (and never quantified), financial burden on the city.
This death has been a long time coming. Initially, the concept of a foliage-filled bridge—and the attractive renderings that came with it—had a ring of charm to them. But the Garden Bridge’s extremely murky procurement process, hazy costs, and utter lack of practical benefits soured the public against it, not to mention the funds it would have taken from city transit bodies, and the heavy security many thought it required.
Its departure from the scene signals far more than just the failure of the project itself. It marks the end of an era.
The Garden Bridge is perhaps the ultimate emblem of the tenure of London’s previous mayor, Boris Johnson. While the city’s mayors are always more like cheerleaders than changemakers, Johnson’s term was nonetheless a period when the city was awash with splashy, flashy new projects designed more for publicity than utility. Barely a month went by without the unveiling of some spectacular-but-ludicrous plan to transform the city with some new bit of funhouse infrastructure. Many of these proposals started off by trying to tackle something of importance, such as the need for segregated bike lanes. But somewhere down the line, they started resembling sheep dyed pink for the pleasure of Marie Antoinette.
There were plans for a bike path floating in the river that would likely bob constantly with the tide, while simultaneously failing to provide a new route that the city actually needed. There was the ambitious scheme to retool London’s disused underground tunnels as a cycling network. This ignored the fact that there are very few of these tunnels, they don’t connect, and they can only be accessed from subway platforms. Elsewhere, architect Norman Foster devised an eye-wateringly anonymous scheme to cap commuter railways with bike highways.
While many schemes remained fantasies, some major hare-brained schemes actually made it through. The 2012 Olympics brought the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a red-painted viewing tower perched on the edge of the Olympic Park that resembles a giant tangle of metal guts. Costing £22.7 ($29.4) million to build, it doesn’t offer a view that’s either extensive or unique, and as a result was turned into a giant slide—one on which a single ride currently costs £16.50 ($21.40). Nearby is the now notorious Emirates Air Line, a (heavily branded) gondola line that strove to be both a valuable transit link and a tourist attraction. It failed to become either, and its operators have resorted to promoting it as a party location. It did manage one accolade, though: Until 2011, it was the most expensive gondola ever built. That wasn’t even London’s only mobile folly. The Garden Bridge designer Thomas Heatherwick was also tasked with creating a new model of bus, which turned out to be a catalog of design errors.
There were some successes during this period, though, including genuinely segregated bike highways on the city’s existing road network. It also saw the beginning of the vast Crossrail project to streamline commuter transit across the region. (So far it’s even being delivered on schedule and within budget.)
London’s fashion for this urbanist tomfoolery didn’t foreshadow a city in breakdown. It merely revealed a place where the political elites were distracted, high on the idea of endless budgets and self-promotion. During an era when austerity cuts were battering basic services, it also demonstrated the extent to which Mayor Johnson was willfully disconnected from what most Londoners actually wanted.
Coming in tandem with the Olympics, though, these zany projects still gave the impression of a city bursting with self-transformative zeal—much of it misdirected and muddled, but still representing a dynamism that other cities might admire.
Don’t expect to see projects like the Garden Bridge crop up in London over the next decade or so. In Brexit Britain, most of the country’s energy will be channeled into minimizing the potential for economic disaster as the country leaves the EU. As for London, a deeply internationalist city that’s still somewhat shell-shocked, there’s little appetite for such frivolity when basic provisions are suddenly so uncertain.
People want charm and beauty in their lives, and they also want useful stuff like bridges, if they’re actually going to prove useful. London’s folly boom produced some very pretty renderings, but its overall effect served to corrupt rather than enhance public debate. It won’t be missed.