Thursday, 26 June 2014

The proposed 'Garden Bridge' in London

The ‘Garden Bridge’ project in London seems to be getting an easy ride in the media. Maybe it’s the involvement of designer Thomas Heatherwick and the actress/campaigner Joanna Lumley, who thought it up, two people who have done much in recent years to deserve our respect; or the support of Boris Johnson, who is inexplicably popular in London.

The proposed pedestrian bridge will cost around £175 million. It will link the South Bank (near the National Theatre) to the north bank (near Temple underground station), a section of the Thames already well served by bridges. It is therefore totally unnecessary. The Garden Bridge Trust have already been promised £30 million by the Government, £30 million from Transport for London, and £30 million from private donors, according to the Evening Standard (below). Current plans aim to have it built by 2018.

What particularly annoys me is when Heatherwick and the Garden Bridge Trust team invoke the spirit of guerrilla and community gardening, and projects like the High Line in New York, as inspiration for and in justification of the project. The ‘garden bridge’ is the opposite of those things, and that’s what this blog post is about.

Let’s be clear, the ‘garden bridge’ is not a green project. It is a massive concrete engineering construction project, with oversized planters on top. Crucially, the projects is a top-down initiative; exactly the opposite to guerrilla and community gardening, which are bottom-up and community-led initiatives.

In a Guardian article (26 June 2014, link below), Heatherwick says, “It feels like we’re trying to pull off a big crime” and describes the design evolution as a form of “guerrilla gardening”. The team may be pulling off a crime, but not the one they think they’re pulling off. Here is a definition of Guerrilla Gardening (from Richard Reynolds’ book ‘On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries’, Bloomsbury, 2008): “THE ILLICIT CULTIVATION OF SOMEONE ELSE’S LAND.”

The most celebrated guerrilla gardens, of course, become legitimate because they are embraced by the communities they spring up in. They become officially recognised and much-loved community gardens and allotments. Nevertheless, people enter into guerrilla gardening knowing they are beautifying or producing food in a temporary neglected space over what is likely to be a relatively short period of time. This is the spirit of guerrilla gardening. So, hardly a corporate construction project.

Let’s look at the specific example of the High Line in Manhattan, a mile-long elevated linear park so beloved of architects like Heatherwick, who invokes it as an inspiration. The important point to get is that the High Line was once a railway viaduct built in the 1930s, which was abandoned in the 1980s. It’s a great example of urban renewal. In the years after the last train used the railway, local residents noticed that drought-resistant grasses, shrubs and trees were thriving. It was urban explorers and guerrilla gardeners who first saw the potential for turning this derelict structure into an elevated garden and park. The High Line was very nearly demolished, but community organisations, in particular the non-profit Friends of the High Line, prevented this from happening. Gardens cultivated with the help of community groups alternate with the native flora sections along this very popular urban park; the first section of which opened in 2006, while the third and final section is due to open later this year.

The High Line itself draws some of its ideas from the Promenade Plantée in Paris, which was the world's first elevated park, and was also built on an abandoned railroad viaduct. A London project truly inspired by these highly successful urban renewal schemes would take an existing London bridge, pedestrianise it, and turn it into a green oasis.

Building something from scratch at vast expense to mimic what others have done on derelict urban infrastructure just does not add up. The spirit of the Olympic Games has been invoked, but the Olympic construction at its best rejuvenated a large contaminated derelict area (At worst, of course, it built a car park over local community allotments).

Allotments and community gardens owe everything to enthusiastic local people who garden them. They fulfil a real community need. What would £175 million (the estimated cost of London’s ‘garden bridge’) buy in terms of grass-roots greening projects?

The desire to garden in an urban environment is very strong. There are waiting lists for allotments in towns all over the UK. In Dinas Powys, we established a Community Garden on an abandoned play area, which had become overgrown and was the focus for anti-social behaviour. This is now a highly productive local food growing area for around 30 families and is a community hub in a very positive sense. Recent plans include promoting pollinating insects in the area and donating food to a local Food Bank.

It cost around £35,000 to create the Nightingale Community Garden in Dinas Powys (£28,000 was obtained from the Welsh Assembly government’s Tidy Towns initiative and £5,000 from the Vale of Glamorgan’s Creative Rural Communities initiative). So, £175 million could alternatively be used to create 5,000 such Community Gardens around the UK. Given that there are 936 towns listed for England, and around 170 in Wales, this could create a veritable network of community-led local food production. Linked to an education programme, it could represent a revolution in terms of food self-sufficiency, environmental and health benefits (better and cheaper food, health benefits arising from active gardening and social interaction, knock-on effects in health-care spending, reduced crime due to urban renewal etc.).

Finally, I suspect that the maintenance costs of the ‘garden bridge’ have been wildly underestimated. Being a top-down corporate project it cannot expect the level of dedication from community groups and volunteers that make grass-roots community gardens so successful.

See also:
Oliver Wainwright in The Guardian:

Evening Standard:

How the 'garden bridge' intends to redefine 'public space' for the surveillance age (added Nov 2015):

Creating a Community Garden (the Nightingale Community Garden in Dinas Powys) as an example of what could be done around the country instead:
July 2015:

July 2014

May 2014

Sept 2013

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April 2013

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Oct 2012

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Jan 2012