What is most offensive about the Garden Bridge?

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.


From Transport for London’s 2013 consultation on the Garden Bridge

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.


Orford Road, during the Mini Holland trial.

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.

A street in Utrecht

A street in Utrecht. Believe it or not this is only half a mile from the centre of a bustling city of 330,000 people.

Another Dutch city-centre street, this time in Gouda. A calm oasis for children to play in.

Another Dutch city-centre street, this time in Gouda. A calm oasis for children to play in.

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.

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28 Responses to What is most offensive about the Garden Bridge?

  1. JH says:

    A lot of streets in (central) London *are* very quiet. A lot of the side streets off Euston Road, say, are basically deserted even as the main road is pumped full of traffic. It’s not much good for anyone wanting to cycle or walk more than a few hundred yards, but if you’re not going anywhere – if all you want is peace and tranquility – then it’s easy to find.

    • I’m not disputing that are some streets in London that are calm (the examples you give are – tellingly – in Camden). My point is that a huge number of streets in Westminster, the City, RBKC, Lambeth, Southwark and elsewhere could become calm, at a considerably lower cost than £180m.

  2. Billy says:

    The reason the Garden Bridge is supported is because New York has the Highline and that has been widely championed as a success in regen circles. So London must have the same and as soon as poss.

    • ORiordan says:

      The High Line used an existing disused elevated railway track but building a brand new bridge hardly counts as “regeneration”. There is nothing stopping London using existing infrastructure. Like, maybe, shutting Southwark bridge and putting a garden on it or replacing the Elephant & Castle with a big garden…

    • ASLEF shrugged says:

      The Garden Bridge will connect the Temple where hundreds of rich lawyers work, Kings College and Somerset House on the north bank with the National Theatre, the Oxo Tower and Gabriel’s Wharf on the south bank. These are areas of very expensive property in Central London that already have plenty of tourists and visitors, not some rundown corner of Tottenham!

  3. Jason says:

    I’d like to know how a ‘popular tourist attraction’ based in the centre of london that needs security guards to stop large groups massing can ever be an ‘oasis of calm in the heart of the capital.’.

    Just look at literally every other popular tourist attraction in london to see the flaw in the plan…

    • Nico (@NicoVel0) says:

      Not true, the “Emirates Air Line” is a public attraction/transport link/vanity project just like this Garden Bridge, and at most times it is very quiet indeed.

      • congokid says:

        That may be because you have to pay to use it – £6.60 return with an Oyster card – and you can’t simply walk onto it. Plus, it’s not exactly central.

        • It’s also not in central London – and connects one medium trafficked place to somewhere no-one is coming from.

          An attraction having a large number of visitors couldn’t be seen as a failure however could it.

  4. ezpc1 says:

    Reblogged this on ezpcgoescycling and commented:
    I’ve nothing against the Garden Bridge as such, but I do agree that funding a public / private space in the middle of a river, with £60Million from transport and treasury coffers is bit much.
    Just think of how many smaller improvements to cycle paths and pavements for everybody that could make…….it could be literally life changing for some city streets but it is being spent on a London Vanity project instead ……Sigh….

  5. ankee says:

    Reblogged this on Anke's and commented:
    ‘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’

  6. David says:

    £30m of transport budget? What could we do with £30m of transport budget that is actually going to be used for transport.

    How about sorting out the cycle routes too and from either end of the Dartford Crossing?
    How about a new Thames cycle crossing between Dartford and Tower bridge? Between Dartford and Woolwich even better.
    How about a ‘Hovenring’ above the Elephant & Castle and Bow Roundabout?
    How about closing rat runs and replacing them with cycling/pedestrian permeability.

    There are probably thousands of ways we could spend this money that would benefit sustainable transport in Greater London. £30m would go a long way (provided that Committees don’t eat it all.) and create a massive difference if used properly.

    What we don’t need is yet another vanity project that caters only for the few.

  7. D. says:

    I think the bottom line, the basic problem, with the Garden Bridge is exactly as you havevpointd out – why is transport funding being used to create a visitor attraction, a ‘park over the river’? I don’t believe that transoport funding is ever used to build new parks, or to put new kerbside seating in, so why this?

    And even thats a separate issue from the point that it will basically be a privatised public space – no right of way, no 24 hour access, no access if your party is too large (or too rowdy, or the wrong sort…).

    No public money should be going into this project, IMO.

  8. MH says:

    From an engineering point of view it’s an utter disaster. Trees and bridges do not mix at all, and trees in the harsh conditions out in the middle of the Thames without substantial subsoil? No chance. It’ll be scrub and pot plants. That’s why it’s being forced to remain private and engineers want nothing to do with this. If private firms want to waste money then that’s their shout… Although £30 million is cheap given there will be another connection, even a poor one, but if the public purse avoids the maintenance costs then overall we win.

  9. ASLEF shrugged says:

    A little side note in Westminster’s planning approval was that TfL would have to guarantee the £3.5m annual running costs, if it didn’t make enough from corporate events then the taxpayers get to pay for it. On the bright side they’re still about £55m short plus there are legal rumblings from the army of lawyers who have chambers in the Temple and will have their view of the Thames spoilt.

  10. Paddy says:

    How would you handle goods deliveries to the businesses of Soho if the streets were fully pedestrianised? Hard to imagine every single bar and restaurant being restocked by men with wheelbarrows.

    Perhaps if the streets were only closed for part of the day?

    (Oh yes, and I agree that this “bridge” is a silly idea).

    • Of course, deliveries need to take place.

      A typical way of arranging this in many pedestrianised areas is to allow deliveries in the morning, say between 7-10am.

      • EL says:

        no – not then – that is when we take the children to school there! Well maybe 6-8 would do. But I really like the idea of wheelbarrows, myself – something like our bakfiets.

    • Michael J says:

      Many pedestrian areas allow access for deliveries either in a set time window or even throughout the day if it doesn’t cause problems. Alternatively some roads could be kept as non-through-routes for access. These are all solved problems elsewhere in the UK and Europe.
      Besides delivery vans, Soho is full of black cabs, minicabs and chauffeur driven cars rushing about, and it’s those who would be restricted by the proposals.

    • Paul says:

      They seem to manage in Dubrovnik which has a much bigger pedestrianised area.

  11. congokid says:

    If Joanna Lumley ‘longs for a haven, away from the noise and rush’ in the centre of London she only needs to walk a few yards from where the proposed bridge will be situated and into the gardens of Middle and Inner Temples, some of the most pampered and peaceful patches of grass in the UK. It won’t cost the public a penny and I’m sure they can be hired out by her rich chums for private parties if they want.

    • Har Davids says:

      I dont know where she lives, but I’m sure Joanna Lumley can have her haven, wherever she is. There are a lot of Londoners who don’t have the means to leave town and get some fresh air. The amount of money spent is only going to benefit a small minority, in stead of the public in general.

  12. innocent_bikestander says:

    A great little piece that points to the absurdity of not seeing the bigger picture. Nice work.

  13. K. says:

    Bad design, the bridge is in the wrong place, concrete is a massive CO2 emission.

    Cycling could have been built in with a split level or fully segregated design.

    A truly inspiring design would arrive at ground level at both ends with the park seamlessly continuing at both ends, it needn’t go straight across the river, it could be larger by going at an angle – ‘C’ shaped or ‘S’ shaped.

    £3.5million upkeep, I’m sure they could of opened it 24/7, how much for a handful of extra security guards, 100k?

    Putting public money meant for transport into private hands and then denying access is corrupt. TFL have lost their marbles.

  14. Andrea says:

    Another thing that is very offensive is how quickly Westminster and Lambeth have given approval, compared to the years of foot dragging in banning parking on Waterloo Bridge to allow safe cycling there.

    Just another example of the contempt the British Establishment holds for ordinary citizens.


  15. Runny Porridge says:

    My take wasn’t as exhaustive as, but was inspired by yours… http://runnyporridge.wordpress.com/2014/12/07/garden-bridge/

  16. HRH says:

    We can try & stop this now: please sign and RT ASAP:


    We need as many people as possible to put pressure on Boris to stop this nonsense and to tell Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government Eric Pickles, to call in the whole dodgy proposal. Please tell as many people as you know to sign.A publicly funded ‘transport’ project that excludes the fastest growing mode of transport in the city – bikes. Is Boris going to get away with it?

    Here’s what Boris originally planned in 2009 – no bikes allowed again:

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