“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.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.