You can see Berlin’s east-west divide from space

Berlin from space, as of April 2013. Image: Colonel Chris Hadfield, Nasa.

When you look at maps of Berlin made in the decades before 1989, it’s impossible not to notice the physical fact of the city's political divisions. Some maps replaced one half of the city with a blank space; others painfully warped geography to delete one side altogether. 

Looking at maps of the city today, it seems like it's once again a unified whole. You’d have to work hard to pick out exactly where the wall once stood.

The same isn't true of aerial photographs, however. In 2013, astronaut Chris Hadfield took a photo of the city from the 200 mile-high vantage point of International Space Station, and something immediately stuck out. To the west, the lights are white; to the east, they’re yellow. The boundary is a sharp, clear line, mirroring where the wall once stood. Hadfield tweeted the photo with the comment

Berlin at night. Amazingly, I think the light bulbs still show the East/West division from orbit.

It’s not immediately obvious why this should be. After all, the wall fell over 20 years before Hadfield took his photo, and you’d imagine large chunks of infrastructure, including street lights, would have been replaced in that time, especially if the eastern ones were out of date. But apparently, not so much. Soon after Hadfield’s photo did the rounds on social media, Christa Mientus-Schirmer, a member of the city government, told the Guardian:

Although we’ve made a lot of progress in the 20 years since the wall fell, we haven’t had the money we would have liked to equalise the two parts of the city. 

A member of Berlin’s street furniture department got a little more technical, telling the publication:

In the eastern part there are sodium vapour lamps with a yellower colour. And in the western parts there are fluorescent lamps... which produce a whiter colour.

The significance of the lights as a reminder of the once-divided city isn’t lost on residents, either. On the 25th anniversary of reunification in November 2014, an artist used 8,000 glowing balloons to recreate the wall's division: 

Image: German Foreign Office.

There’s currently a push within the EU to replace a million streetlights throughout Europe with new, low-emisison models. These would give that whiter light, so it could be that, just as the remaining sections of the wall are disappearing, the light disparity will fade with time. 

While we’re here, a few other things stick out when you view the city from above. That white blob in the centre of the image (and, incidentally, on the eastern side of the divide) is Alexanderplatz, a central square and transit hub that’s undergone renovation since reunification. This explains its relative brightness compared to the yellower areas around it:

This triangular area of brightness on the top left is Tegel airport – you’d have a hard job missing it as an airline pilot:

And finally, here's a photo taken from space of Berlin during the day by the European space agency and beamed back to earth via laser

Click for a larger image.

Not a division in sight.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.