“Rarely has a project to bring a city together been so divisive”: why do people hate London's Garden Bridge?

Here we go again. Image: Heatherwick.

Rarely has a project to bring a city together been as divisive as London’s Garden Bridge. Conceived by British actress Joanna Lumley and championed by the city’s previous mayor, Boris Johnson, the Garden Bridge is billed as “a stunning new public garden and a vital new pedestrian crossing, spanning the River Thames from the South Bank to Temple station on the north bank”. But opposition to the project was fierce from the beginning, and it continues to intensify as public funds are put at stake.

The development of the Garden Bridge cuts to the core of current debates about the provision, cost and role of green spaces in our cities. Green spaces are central to “liveability”; they provide health and well-being benefits, aid urban climate control, promote biodiversity and can have significant impacts on property prices. Parks also have a clear role as places for social interaction, recreation and environmental education.

Given these benefits, it might seem like any investment in green space should be welcomed. With plans for hundreds of trees and thousands of plants, supporters of the Garden Bridge say it will be both beautiful and functional – an extraordinary place to relax, observe or “race across”.

A floral escape? Image: The Garden Bridge Trust.

But campaigners raise several objections. For one thing, they say the project lacks transparency and questions have been raised regarding the fairness of the design competition and procurement process, as well as the influence exerted by celebrities and prominent architects.

Critics have also argued that the proposed location is already well serviced by bridges (albeit not “garden” ones), with Waterloo Bridge fewer than 400 metres from the site. What’s more, there are other locations – east of Greenwich, for instance – which would benefit more from a cross-Thames connection, while cheaper alternatives would reclaim existing infrastructure, in the style of New York’s famous High Line – for example, Allies and Morrison’s proposal for a garden on Blackfriars Bridge.


Finding the funding

As local authorities confront austerity budgets, funding for parks and gardens is often one of the first things to be cut. As a result, many local governments are seeking to establish alternative sources of income – such as the privately-owned playground Go Ape in Battersea Park, south London. This prompts the question: can we justify developing new green spaces, when the costs of maintaining existing ones is already overwhelming?

The Garden Bridge is expected to cost £185m, the bulk of which is to come from £125m worth of private donation, with a further £60m of public funding from Transport for London and the Department for Transport.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has given assurances that no more public money will be dedicated to the scheme. But with somewhere between £56m and £75m worth of private donations still to be sourced, there are concerns that further requests for funding will be put to the government.

In response to concerns over the costs of the project, Khan ordered an inquiry into whether the bridge offers good value for money. But cancelling the project would not come cheap, either: a recent investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that roughly £22.5m worth of public funding could be lost, if the project doesn’t proceed.

A public good?

The question of who should pay for the bridge has a lot to do with ownership. The Garden Bridge will by administered by a trust, rather than a public authority, so the government will have little control over how the taxpayer’s money is spent. It also means that the bridge will not be a truly public space. Instead, the trust will have the power to close the bridge for private events throughout the year, and dictate how the bridge is used – so far, the list of unacceptable activities include cycling, playing an instrument and flying a kite.

Best behaviour. Image: The Garden Bridge Trust.

Even so, the Garden Bridge would deliver some of the key benefits of green spaces – and it’s not necessarily as bad a design as some campaigners believe. The project could generate financial, political and social buy-in for a new, green public space, just like London’s Olympic Park did. We cannot ignore such landmark developments – and in fact, we may need them if we are to keep maintaining and expanding green public spaces in our cities.

But there is a difference between developing spaces that people can freely enjoy, and designing quasi-private spaces that limit the activities, times and numbers of people allowed in. Historically, public parks have been welcoming and open to all, without imposing major limitations on how people interact with them: we should aim to maintain the ethos of accessibility, functionality and diversity for our green spaces.The Conversation

Ian Mell is a lecturer in planning & civic design at the University of Liverpool.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

More than 830 cities have brought essential services back under public control. Others should follow

A power station near Nottingham: not one owned by Robin Hood Energy, alas, but we couldn't find anything better. Image: Getty.

The wave of cities worldwide rejecting privatization is far bigger and more successful than anyone thought, according to a new report from the Transnational Institute, Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation. Some 835 cities in 45 countries have brought essential services like water, energy and health care back under public control.

The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive and less efficient is losing its momentum. Citizens and users do not necessarily have to resign to paying increasingly higher tariffs for lower standard services. The decline of working conditions in public services is not an inevitability.

And the ever larger role private companies have played in public service delivery may at last be waning. The remunicipalisation movement – cities or local authorities reclaiming privatised services or developing new options – demonstrates that cities and citizens are working to protect and reinvent essential services.

The failure of austerity and privatisation to deliver promised improvements and investments is part of the reason this movement has advanced. But the real driver has been a desire to meet goals such as addressing climate change or increasing democratic participation in service provision. Lower costs and tariffs, improved conditions for workers and better service quality are frequently reported following remunicipalisation.  Meanwhile transparency and accountability have also improved.

Where remunicipalisation succeeds, it also tends to inspire other local authorities to make similar moves. Examples are plentiful. Municipalities have joined forces to push for renewable, climate-friendly energy initiatives in countries like Germany. Public water operators in France and Catalonia are sharing resources and expertise, and working together to overcome the challenges they meet.

Outside Europe, experiments in public services are gaining ground too. Delhi set up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics across the city in 2015 as a first step to delivering affordable primary health care. Some 110 clinics were working in some of the poorest areas of Delhi as of February 2017. The Delhi government claims that more than 2.6m of its poorest residents have received free quality health care since the clinics were set up.


Local authorities and the public are benefiting from savings too. When the Nottingham City Council found out that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their energy bills, they set up a new supply company. The company, Robin Hood Energy, which offers the lowest prices in the UK, has the motto: “No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing.”

Robin Hood Energy has also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership.

Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Remunicipalised public services often involve new forms of participation for workers and citizens. Remunicipalisation is often a first step towards creating the public services of the future: sustainable and grounded in the local economy. Inspiration can be found in the European towns and villages aiming for 'zero waste' with their remunicipalised waste service, or providing 100 per cent locally-sourced organic food in their remunicipalised school restaurants.

Public services are not good simply because they are not private. Public services must also continuously renew themselves, grow, innovate and recommit to the public they serve.

The push for remunicipalisation in Catalonia, for example, has come from a movement of citizen platforms. For them, a return to public management is not just an end in itself, but a first step towards the democratic management of public services based on ongoing civil participation.

Evidence is building that people are able to reclaim public services and usher in a new generation of public ownership. The momentum is building, as diverse movements and actors join forces to bring positive change in communities around the world.

You can read the Transnational Institute report, “Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation”, on its website.