6 questions we still have about London's Garden Bridge

The Garden Bridge: monster or marvel?

London’s proposed Garden Bridge is a bit like the Rorschach inkblot test. To some, it looks like a new piece of public space and infrastructure in central London, littered with delightful greenery. To others, it looks a bit like a suspect waste of money probably motivated by, basically, pure evil.

These different perspectives are possible largely because of the substantial number of unanswered questions still surrounding the plans for the bridge, construction of which is due to begin at the end of 2015. Here are six – plus any answers we’ve been able to unearth so far.  

1. Just how much public money will be spent on it?

Until recently, everyone has been under the impression that the £175m cost of the bridge's construction will split into £60 worth of public investment and £115m of private money. Earlier this month, mayor Boris Johnson assured LBC listeners  that “the maintenance cost will not be borne by the public sector, I’ve made that clear.”

But last week, Architects’ Journal got hold of a letter in which the Greater London Authority appears to agree to underwrite the bridge’s £3.5m maintenance cost. 

We asked the Garden Bridge Trust (GBT) about this, and a spokesperson told us that the GLA had only underwritten the costs because the GBT could promise a “robust business plan” which should cover all maintenance: 

The Garden Bridge Trust fully intends and expects to raise the money required for both the construction of the Garden Bridge and the ongoing maintenance and operations. More than £120m has been pledged so far and we have a clear business plan in place to raise the estimated £3.5m per annum needed to cover the on-going costs.

Answer: Probably only that initial £60m. Probably.

2. Will you have to pay to cross it?

Rumours about the bridge's funding and its closure for private events led some to think passerby would have to pay to cross the bridge. This, however, isn't the case: private events would presumably be ticketed, but anyone crossing during normal hours could do so for free. 

Answer: No. 

3. Does it even count as a bridge?

Back in November, reports emerged that the bridge would not be open to cyclists, would close at night and for private events, and would only be open to groups of eight or more if they let staff know in advance. Also, that picnics (read: joy) would be banned. 

These regulations would hugely negate the usefulness of the bridge as a pedestrian walkway – you wouldn't be able to rely on crossing it whenever you needed to, so it'd be unlikely to form part of anyone's regular journeys. The rules on large groups and eating sandwiches would also make it less of a park or public space. 

On this, the GBT spokesperson said that the regulations on use are still under discussion. On the groups of eight issue, they said: 

Most public spaces have ways of managing large groups to ensure the safety and comfort of visitors. The Trust had to include this in the planning application and put forward an initial figure of more than 8 people... this was a starting point only and we are talking to stakeholders and the local planning authority to confirm our agreed numbers. 

And on the picnics?

The bridge is a place for people to linger and admire new views of the city, but it will also provide an efficient route for commuters... We will ask users to be considerate to others when using the bridge.

So, not massively clear then.

Answer: Yes, if enough of the limitations on its use are taken away. 

4. Is it in the right place?

Even if you do consider a walkway that's shut half the time and closed to cyclists a "bridge", it hasn't been planned for an area that particularly needs one. The proposed site is between Blackfriars Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, to link Temple with the Southbank:

This location only strengthens the impression that this is more tourist attraction than infrastructure project, however. There are already three bridges within 1km of the proposed crossing.

To the east, meanwhile, there's a long stretch of the river which is effectively uncrossable, where a bridge – even a limited one – would have genuinely come in handy. 

Answer: For maximum footfall from West End audiences and Southbank visitors, yes. For actual Londoners, no. 

5. Was Thomas Heatherwick the right designer for the job?

In another exclusive, Architects’ Journal revealed a couple of weeks ago that the bridge's chosen designer, Thomas Heatherwick, was scored more highly for bridge experience by TfL than the other two firms, despite the fact that both have designed far more bridges than him. 

Wilkinson Eyre, one of the firms turned down for the contract, lists 27 bridge projects on its website. Heatherwick, meanwhile, has reportedly only designed one. 

6. Is it a secret Diana memorial?

When Joanna Lumley first dreamt up the idea of a garden bridge back in 1997, she envisioned it as a memorial for the recently deceased Lady Di. We thought it was worth checking whether this was still the case.

According to the GBT spokesman, at least, the project is no longer linked to the people's princess in any way.

Answer: No, thank goodness. She's stuck with that fountain in Hyde Park and Kensington's Diana Memorial Playground. Sorry, Express readers.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.