It looks like Westminster Council will today follow Lambeth Council in approving planning permission for the Garden Bridge.
I’ve been wondering what constitutes the most offensive thing about this project. Is it the way £30m of transport funding (and an additional £30m from the Treasury) is being used fund a scheme that quite explicitly has no transport function at all?
This isn’t just to do with cycling not being included – or even considered – as a mode of transport. Everything about this bridge suggests that it is a place to visit – a garden – and not something to move through. It’s not even a park. Westminster – tellingly – refer to it as ‘a popular visitor attraction’.
This huge amount of public funding comes despite claims last year that Transport for London’s contribution would be limited to £4m, with the Garden Bridge Trust itself raising the funding for construction.
And to be clear this is a ‘bridge’ in name only. It will be closed to the public between 12am-6am every day, and closed once a month for ‘fundraising events’. Parties of eight people or more are ‘required to contact the Garden Bridge Trust to request a formal visit to the bridge’, in advance, apparently because groups of eight people or more constitute a ‘protest risk’.
You are, of course, free to use other London bridges 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and indeed to protest on them – because they are public space. This Garden Bridge is not really public space at all, but a privately-managed garden, a ‘visitor attraction’, to be built at vast expense, in the middle of a river.
And yet, ironically, it seems Westminster Council would refuse planning permission outright for this development if it was entirely private, due to the harm to views up and down the Thames.
It is also clear that if this proposal was for a private commercial development of this height and size, the harm to these views would be considered unacceptable and the application refused
The Garden Bridge manages to skip around these objections by teasingly positioning itself on the line between public and private space.
All this is bad enough, but I think the most offensive thing about the Garden Bridge is something else entirely. It lies in one of the main justifications for its construction; namely, that it will create a much-needed area of peace and calm in the centre of London.
Take this, for instance, from Transport for London –
Inspired by the actress Joanna Lumley, the proposed bridge would be covered with trees and plants, offering an oasis of calm in the heart of the capital.
Or in this video, where Joanna Lumley claims she ‘longs for a haven, away from the noise and rush’.
Now of course there is nothing wrong with peace and tranquility. But what is offensive about the Garden Bridge is the unspoken assumption that peace, calm and tranquility can only be created in London by building it at vast expense in the middle of the river.
This isn’t true at all. We could create peace, calm and tranquility on the existing roads and streets of London, if we wanted to – and at a cost considerably lower than £180 million. For instance, we could pedestrianise and ‘green’ Soho, very easily. This is an area where people on foot vastly outnumber the numbers of people getting around by car, and yet for some perverse reason motor traffic continues to dominate.
Want some peace, calm and tranquility here? Limit motor traffic to deliveries only, in the morning. We don’t need to look too hard for how to do this. Waltham Forest managed to create ‘an oasis of calm’ in October, through the simple expedient of… using a plastic barrier to close a road.
A huge number of streets in the boroughs surrounding the Garden Bridge – I’m thinking here particularly of Westminster and the City – could become calm and pleasant places, at very little cost, if a concerted effort was made to remove through-traffic from them. Westminster seems to have a damaging policy of accommodating through-traffic on every single one of its roads and streets.
I think our streets, especially ones with a predominantly residential function, can and should function as calm and pleasant places, in their own right. We don’t need to build green space at huge expense in the river; we just need to reclaim it from the existing road network.
To me, the Garden Bridge project appears to completely overlook the enormous potential of our streets and roads to be different; to be safer, calmer and more pleasant places. It buys into the stale assumption that London is, by default, a noisy, dangerous and fume-filled place that can’t possibly be changed, and that can only be escaped by retreating onto an expensive vanity project in the middle of the river.
That’s what’s most offensive about it.