Promoting the Garden Bridge as London’s answer to the New York High Line is spurious, writes Hattie Hartman
With this month’s Footprint devoted to some of the best projects nominated for the 2014 Landscape Institute Awards, it is worth looking at the furore surrounding Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed Garden Bridge. Approved earlier this month by Lambeth Council with 45 planning conditions, the bridge will go before Westminster Council on December 2.
Heatherwick’s mesmerising designs, such as the Olympic cauldron, are well-known, as are his seductive visualisations, one of the most fantastical being a 2010 proposal for a biomass plant near Middlesbrough. The images promoting the Garden Bridge are no exception, showing a New York High Line-inspired public thoroughfare with ravishing planting in the capable hands of garden designer Dan Pearson.
But comparing it to the New York scheme is spurious. The High Line recuperated a derelict piece of existing railway infrastructure from the 1930s which was already stitched into the fabric of Manhattan’s lower west side. A park full of trees on a new bridge over the Thames is a very different proposition.
The Garden Bridge jumps through incredible hoops to create a park on a bridge. Planting beds, deep enough to accommodate 270 trees up to 15m high, are elegantly disguised within the depth of radiating wedge segments that make up the bridge’s two piers. Pearson proposes five planting character areas - pioneer, wild glade, scarp, cultivated glade and leafy - across the bridge’s 366m length. Surely the charm of the Thames is its scale and the remarkable views. Foster + Partners’ Millennium Bridge and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands’ Hungerford footbridges celebrate that vastness. This exposed location is not the place for a manicured park.
I’m all for more connectivity across the Thames, but Queen’s Walk to Temple is not where it’s most needed. A bridge in this location would help alleviate the heaving weekend crowds on the South Bank, but nine bridges already span this two-mile stretch of river. Projections of visitor numbers suggest that the Garden Bridge would add another 3.5 million annual visitors, an 18 per cent increase on current numbers. Cross-river connections are more urgent both east at Rotherhithe and west at burgeoning Nine Elms.
What is most concerning about this bridge is that its main driver is to create a horticultural visitor attraction, not a connected piece of city. Its planning application states that ‘the iconic nature of the design, the new viewpoints it will create and the inherent attractiveness of a high-quality landscaped open space will create a popular visitor attraction that will support London’s world city role’.
Is this what London most needs? Contrast the Garden Bridge with Grant Associates’ thoughtful proposal for the public realm of Westminster’s Church Street Market (page 50), this year’s winner in the Landscape Institute’s ‘neighbourhood planning’ category. How many similar neighbourhood projects could be deployed for the £60 million of public funds committed to the Garden Bridge? Such projects would bolster London’s threatened high streets and bring urban greening to the outer boroughs, cementing London’s status as a global city by strengthening its neighbourhoods. We do not need a bastard cousin of the High Line at centre stage on the Thames.