Modest investment in London’s outer boroughs can genuinely green London at a fraction of the cost of the Garden Bridge, says Hattie Hartman
Calls for greener, healthier cities are everywhere these days. Defra’s draft nature plan for England promotes the concept of ‘natural capital’ and the role of urban green spaces in fostering wellbeing and economic vibrancy, while the Design Council is conducting a survey on healthy placemaking for built environment professionals.
Elsewhere, a campaign to classify London as a National Park City involves giving away 100,000 maps of the capital’s parks and green spaces this summer; numerous events at Open City’s GreenSkyThinking week (15-19 May) will showcase ways to green London and an urban tree conference in Birmingham earlier this month devoted an entire day to trees and health. Then there are robust, bottom-up initiatives such as the Dalston Curve and Newham’s Cody Dock.
Now Sadiq Khan has dealt what is surely the final blow to the Garden Bridge, one can’t help but consider how the £37.4 million already spent on the project could have been put to better use. In the same week Hodge released her report, New London Architecture launched an exhibition about the Lower Lea Valley, an area of London that is crying out for parks and investment. The lower river Lea straddles the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham as it meanders south from the Olympic Park for three miles to reach the Thames at East India Dock, opposite the O2 Arena.
Both the NLA exhibition and a linear park along the river, the Leaway, are the work of 5th Studio, which has patiently nursed this project to life over a decade. Modest and incremental, the Leaway is everything the Garden Bridge is not. Through a mind-numbing process of meticulously restitching urban fabric and subtly improving wayfinding through the area’s spaghetti-tangle of transport and utility infrastructure, a park has been pieced together. Riverbank trees such as willows and black and white poplars – leftovers from the Olympic Park – have been planted along the way, while every nook and cranny of green space has been gently upgraded. The latest pedestrian link, a ramp up to Twelve Trees Bridge at Bow, completed in January.
All but 600m of the Leaway is now continuous. As one wanders north from the Thames, post-industrial uses such as scrap metal and skip hire sit cheek by jowl with Amazon and Sainsbury depots, euphemistically termed ‘fulfilment centres’.
A mere £8 million would fund the Leaway’s remaining missing link between Cody Dock and the A13
A mere £8 million would fund the Leaway’s remaining missing link between Cody Dock and the A13, via a pedestrian and cycle bridge across the Lea. This bridge, which already has planning permission, would directly connect Star Lane DLR station to the Aberfeldy Estate, currently undergoing a £200 million facelift to deliver almost 1,200 new homes by 2020.
The Leaway is at a critical juncture now as responsibility for its completion shifts from the London Legacy Development Corporation to Newham and Tower Hamlets councils. The NLA exhibition, along with two publications, Lea River Park Primer and Lea River Park Design Manual, outline this vision and how it can be delivered as development sites come forward.
For the same £200 million needed to build the Garden Bridge (granted much of this would be raised privately), a park with city-wide appeal could be built between Bow and West Ham, incorporating seven listed gasholders. Think Eden Project or Gardens by the Bay.
Thomas Heatherwick’s elegant bridge design and Dan Pearson’s ambitious planting would undoubtedly be spectacular; a magnet for Londoners and tourists alike. Yet investment in the Lea Valley would contribute to a healthier and more equitable London by putting green spaces and activities where they are sorely lacking.
This column was published in the Buildings that care issue – click here to buy a copy