On the naked entitlement of Thomas Heatherwick

That bloody bridge. Image: Heatherwick/Arup.

Oh lord, grant me the self-confidence of an entitled designer throwing a tantrum because the taxpayer won’t pay for his toys any more.

Last week, London mayor Sadiq Khan finally announced that no more public funding would be forthcoming for the city’s controversial Garden Bridge project. In theory the bridge can still happen; in practice, with the promised private backing in short supply and planning permission due to run out by the end of the year, it’s probably dead.

The response of Thomas Heatherwick, the visionary behind the scheme, was to write a whiny article for the Evening Standard under the headline, “One day I hope London gets its garden bridge”. In it, he praises his own “extraordinary design”, and complains of how sad the decision had made him. We’ve all had dreams dashed and projects that go nowhere; very few of us then get to pen newspaper columns complaining about the fact.

And the column in question is absolutely dripping with entitlement. Some extracts, with commentary:

I first got excited about the idea of a garden bridge when it was pointed out to me that despite having the best views in the whole city, the human experience of our river crossings tends to be of pavements attached to the side of dual carriageways.

Things Thomas Heatherwick is seemingly unaware of: the Millennium Bridge, the Golden Jubilee Bridges, the Emirates airline, the existence of boats.

And when you ask people if they have ever been asked to meet someone on one of London’s bridges, the answer is always “never”.

This is flatly untrue. One of the most significant meetings of my life happened on Waterloo Bridge; we’d agreed to meet there, because it had the best views of the city you can get from ground level.

When I tweeted as much, a fair few people replied with their own experiences of dates and rendezvous that had begun on one of London’s bridges. One person replied with the story of a dinner they had organised on one.

What Heatherwick means is that he would never consider meeting someone on one of the existing bridges. And that’s a reasonable opinion and all, but it’s not one it’s worth spending millions of pounds of public money to change.

Anyone who has experienced the magic stitching of New York’s dislocated West Side by the raised High Line Park created on a disused railway line (whose creators have been advising the Garden Bridge Trust) can envisage what this can do.

Two things strike me about this line. One is that the big achievement of the High Line was to cap the regeneration of Manhattan’s West Side, and while there are areas of London that could do with such care and attention, “the stretch of the Thames between the Oxo Tower and the Temple” is really not one of them. You might as well try to regenerate Belgravia.

The other is that London already has a number of things that could – indeed, sometimes are – be described as its High Line: the Parkland Walk, a disused railway line between Finsbury Park and Highgate, say, or the Jubilee Greenway, from Hackney Wick down to Beckton (which is a lovely walk, if you can get past the vague smell of the sewer you’re walking on top of).

Anyway: London doesn’t need a High Line, this area doesn’t need regenerating, and there are loads of other bridges within a 10 minute walk, so what point is he making exactly?

But a bridge of 366 metres, free to use, open every day, holding a garden created by amazing plantsman Dan Pearson, that you don’t get whooshed along by cars but lets you dawdle and gaze; that sounded to me like a completely new type of space that Londoners could get something from.

Well, no, it sounds like a park, we already have some of those.

What’s more, one of the Londoners who would get something from this design is presumably the one who designed it. Funny Heatherwick doesn’t mention this.

Much of the funding has been in place for some time. 

Not enough, given how much it’ll cost.

Large sums of public and philanthropic money have been pledged and spent.

Too much, given how little has been achieved.

But endless political wrangling has now brought it to a standstill. 

No, the complete absence of a credible financial plan from its backers has brought it to a standstill.

Whatever the politics, to me as a Londoner this is saddening; for a project so close to reality to be abandoned is such a missed opportunity and waste of resources.

The project wasn’t remotely close to reality – that was half the problem – but that’s not even the biggest deception in this sentence. The biggest one is the way Heatherwick is adopting the persona of a member of the public. He is saddened “as a Londoner”. There is nothing in this line, and precious little elsewhere in the article, to tell us that he has any skin in the game.

But – he does, doesn’t he? His firm designed the bridge; its original estimate of the cost of doing so was three times higher than those of one rival bidder, and 11 times higher than another. According to Margaret Hodges’ investigation of the project, the amount the Heatherwick practice earned from the project stood at over £2.6m:

Section 37, page 10. Thanks to Dan Anderson for digging this out.

In other words, Heatherwick has a financial interest, as well as an artistic one, here.


Oddly, he doesn’t see fit to mention this, either. He is just a disappointed Londoner, saddened that something beautiful won’t happen, because the taxpayer cannot recognise his vision.

As I suggested at the top of this thing, there’s one word which sums up this mess: “entitlement”. This wouldn’t normally be that big a deal – people who write newspaper columns are generally a pretty entitled breed (hi) – except it’s that entitlement that has doomed the project.

Heatherwick felt entitled to accompany former mayor Boris Johnson to meetings with sponsors, before his firm had even won the contract to build the bridge. Heatherwick Studios felt entitled to design the bridge, despite not having built a bridge over water before.

And when the project failed to raise the necessary private cash, the bridge’s backers felt entitled to public money to plug the gap.

There’s nothing in Heatherwick’s column about any of this. He simply feels entitled to his bridge, because he wants it, whatever the practical problems that have prevented it from coming into existence.

Instead, he blames the bridge’s demise on “political wrangling”. It’s a funny way of saying “we failed”.

This story was updated at 2pm to incorporate extra information about the project's finances.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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