“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.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.