London’s Garden Bridge Was the Antithesis to the Futuristic Public Spaces We Need
London's Millennium Bridge with St Paul's Cathedral. Image: Nick Kenrick/Flickr

London’s Garden Bridge Was the Antithesis to the Futuristic Public Spaces We Need

Public city spaces should unite, not divide.
May 5, 2017, 1:17pm

A futuristic city project that promised to shine a light on London but soon transformed into a blueprint for how not to create a shared public space has lost the support of the city's mayor Sadiq Khan.

London's Garden Bridge is dead in the water, but it never really got off the ground.

It was early 2013 when English designer Thomas Heatherwick unveiled his proposal for a 'Garden Bridge' across the Thames river, stretching between the South Bank on the Riverside Walkway to Temple station. A "scheme to connect North and South London with a garden," it was described by London's then-deputy mayor for transport Isabel Dedring as an "iconic piece of green infrastructure" to "symbolise London as a high quality of life place to live."

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Early concept images were idyllic; the ultramodern, 366-metre structure was to be blanketed with colourful expanses of trees, flowers and patches of miniature meadow. It was to be London's very own New York High Line—a bridge for all.

But details soon emerged, one by one, that chipped away at the Garden Bridge's utopian pitch.

Corporate sponsors would be able to close off the bridge's footpath for private parties; visitors would have their smartphones tracked and movements monitored by CCTV. The bridge would be closed overnight, and groups would have to pre-book their visits or not be allowed to cross, despite the project being part-funded with taxpayers' money.

Image: Arup/Heatherwick Studio

According to British writer and journalist Anna Minton, author of Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-first Century City, the project was an acute expression of the worst excesses of London—a city led by then-mayor Boris Johnson and under control of Britain's Conservative government.

"It was a folly, a symbol of pomp and excess," Minton told Motherboard over the phone. "It would have had a really lasting impact on the city. It was the ultimate symbol of excess."

The bridge would become "the most expensive footbridge in the world" at nearly £200 million—well over double what it was first billed, and costing millions a year to maintain. Unlike London's Sky Garden, a private building with a free attraction for visitors, the Garden Bridge was almost its inverse: a publicly funded structure that would be open for corporate interests.

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Private sector donors pulled their money from the project, leaving a £70 million funding gap. Some £46 million in spent public money later and its fate was finally sealed. In late April, Khan told the Garden Bridge Trust, the charity established by the Bridge's backers, that he cannot provide the financial guarantee for planning permission. The entire project will now, almost without a doubt, be scrapped.

Rather than bringing people together, the Garden Bridge increasingly looked like it would resemble a symbol of alienation: look, but don't touch, a visible expression of the hidden antagonisms in London—only-just masking the broad economic inequalities that are strongly felt but often concealed from public view in a city divided. Because of this, it failed to garner mass support among London's citizens.

Image: Arup/Heatherwick Studio

Celebrity bridge endorser, actress Joanna Lumley, defended the project to the Times newspaper, saying it would cost just 32p per person in the UK to go ahead. "It's not as if we're stealing bread from people," she said, seeming ignorant of the wider political climate of foodbank visits, homelessness, and in-work poverty in Britain.

"It was never really for all Londoners."

What the bridge ultimately stood for was at odds with some of the boldest visions for London's collective spaces in the 20th century; the housing estates that put social association at their core; the triumph of publicly minded spaces like the National Theatre at the South Bank, itself at risk of privatisation as the Undercroft controversy showed.

In a city where affordable housing can mean paying as high as 80 percent of the market rate, perhaps it's not surprising that there was a disconnect between Lumley's vision for the bridge and the material facts of life for most Londoners, manifesting in a strange unreality, symptomatic of wider inequality.

Read more: Tomorrow's Cities Need to Be Shaped by Residents

"The bridge was very much a computer aided design fantasy garden rather than a real pleasure garden for all Londoners to enjoy," Minton told Motherboard. "The big problem with this is it was never really for all Londoners."

After years of controversy, contractual setbacks, and allegations of corruption, the Garden Bridge is a beacon that future city public spaces should not follow.

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