This is why the Garden Bridge may never actually happen

Be honest, you're going to miss this artist's impression when we stop using it. Image: bloody Heatherwick again.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally incorrectly stated that the new bridge had yet to gain planning permission on the South Bank of the river. We are happy to make this correction.

One of the great mysteries of contemporary London is how the Garden Bridge project came to be so hated. Gardens are nice. Bridges are nice. Even Joanna Lumley, if you’re into such things, is nice.

And yet, at least among the sort of people inclined to bang on about municipal politics on social media, the Garden Bridge seems to have become an icon of everything that is wrong with contemporary London: money thrown at functionless nicknacks for tourists and the rich corporations, and designed by the authorities’ mates, even while the city’s real problems go unsolved. It takes impressive PR skills to turn what is essentially just a park into the infrastructure equivalent of the Masque of the Red Death, but somehow the Garden Bridge’s backers have done it.

Anyway, for the reason, the publication of the Garden Bridge Trust’s accounts yesterday caused rather more excitement than some numbers from a charity normally would. The Trust has tended to respond to all stories about them with bland assurances that everything is just peachy (honestly, they once asked me to add a clarification to what was very obviously a joke story), so you might expect the news to be good.

The news is not good. The accounts, which cover the 17 months to March 2016, and are put together by the charity’s trustees – effectively, its board, rather than its management – conclude that the project is in serious trouble. The key line in the introduction by the trust’s chairman, Lord Mervyn Davies, is this:

“Due to the material uncertainties in existence ahead of finalising these accounts, trustees are unable to conclude that the trust is a going concern, and feel it only appropriate to flag these risks in this report.”

“Not a going concern” is exactly the phrase you want people reading just before you ask them to donate to your infrastructure project.

So what’s gone wrong?

The costs have soared

The project was expected to cost £185m. Its actual costs are now likely to “substantially exceed” that.

The project still needs more public support

One of the hurdles still to be overcome, Davies notes, will be to get mayor Sadiq Khan to promise to honour the pledge made by his predecessor that the London city authorities will guarantee the bridge’s future maintenance costs. It’s unclear, to say the least, that Khan has any intention of doing this. More likely, in fact, he’s trying to cancel it by stealth.


Donations are down

Even to cover the £185m, the Trust would need to raise another £56m. Yet in the 17 month period covered in the accounts, the trust raised just £13m in new private donations for the bridge. At that rate, it’s going to take years.

The clock is ticking

And the project doesn’t have years. The planning consent the bridge has on the north bank of the river, from Westminster council, expires in December 2017. (It also requires a deal to be in place to guarantee maintenance costs, hence the pressure on Sadiq Khan to do what Boris Johnson promised.)

So – the Garden Bridge Trust needs to find substantially more than £56m, get more planning consent, and persuade the mayor the project is worth throwing more money at, all in the next few months – otherwise, the whole thing is dead. Good luck with that.

It’s a shame, in its way. The Garden Bridge should be lovely: a new park, in a part of London that’s short of them. But it probably isn’t going to happen – and the project’s chequered history mean that many won’t mourn when it doesn’t.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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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.