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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Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.