“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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.