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The Garden Bridge subverts the lessons of history

Heatherwick's Garden Bridge
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How can proponents of Heatherwick’s £175m project point to the High Line and the London Eye when their scheme has zero in common with them, asks Dan Anderson

For all of the supposed boldness and audacity of the Garden Bridge, its supporters do tend to lean heavily on the precedent set by other destinations.

Its origin story, we are told, is tied to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in Kensington Gardens. Thomas Heatherwick and co never miss an opportunity to invoke the ‘spirit’ of the London Olympics. Critics are routinely reminded of the doomsayers that warned us against the London Eye. And all along – up to and including the triumphant reporting of Sky’s recent £5 million naming rights deal – it has been described as London’s High Line, a reference to the iconic linear garden in New York.

What is astonishing about these comparisons is the way that Garden Bridge proponents casually namecheck these other destinations, while systematically ignoring all of the lessons that they have to teach us about placemaking and urban development.

Let’s consider them in turn.

The Diana Memorial was supposedly the impetus that brought Lumley and Heatherwick together. There is a Youtube video of a speech last year at the Siobhan Davies Studio, in which Lumley describes the genesis of the Garden Bridge. This includes a description of the ‘Memorial Bridge’ that, according to Lumley, came a narrow second to Kathryn Gustafson’s Memorial Fountain. In fact, that design competition was always set up to deliver a monument in Kensington Gardens and it came down to a shortlist of two fountains: one by Gustafson Porter and the other by Anish Kapoor.

Gustafson soon learned what happens when you put a beautiful, knee-high fountain in a park

In a fabulous piece of showmanship, Lumley asks the audience if anyone can remember what the winning entry was. One person does, but he is expertly brushed aside. The correct answer is supposed to be dead silence. What is so revealing about this exchange is the way that Lumley cannot seem to fathom how anyone could possibly prefer Gustafson’s fountain to her beloved bridge. She appears to have forgotten or misjudged the aims of that competition and the context in which it took place.

Remember that Diana died in 1997, but the competition was only launched in 1999. Our research at the time made apparent how far the public mood had shifted. Everyone remembers the aftermath to Diana’s death – that massive public outpouring of emotion. Few remember the aftermath to the aftermath – a collective sense of what-were-we-thinking introspection. In a survey we conducted for the Royal Parks, we found that many people didn’t want any memorial at all. To the extent that people liked the idea, words like ‘modest’, ‘elegant’, ‘dignified’ and ‘appropriate’ are still ringing in my ears. They recoiled from anything that could be considered ‘extravagant’. Most of all, they felt that a memorial should be ‘respectful’ or ‘evocative’. The Memorial, we concluded, had to be modest, tastefully done and unambiguously inspired by the Princess.

That is what the Memorial Fountain was and everything that the Garden Bridge was not. The Fountain was a thoughtful reflection of the public sentiment. To build a Garden Bridge as a memorial to Diana would have been to cynically exploit a national tragedy as the funding mechanism for someone else’s project. It would have hijacked one woman’s memory for the realisation of another woman’s vision.

In operation, the Memorial Fountain furthermore teaches us the following: the designer doesn’t get to decide how people will use a monument once it is built.

Gustafson imagined the Fountain as a serene place for quiet contemplation. She soon learned what happens when you put a beautiful, knee-high fountain in a park. Children will want to stand in it. That’s exactly what they did. Some of them slipped and fell, necessitating a costly retrofit. Even the Fountain’s flaws worked in its favour though, as the whole episode was brilliantly evocative of Diana. It was as if – from beyond the grave – the People’s Princess was still thumbing her nose at the taste-making aesthetes to champion the right of children to splash about in public fountains.

To the frazzled commuter only one thing matters: point-to-point journey time

There is an important lesson there. The transport case for the Garden Bridge is central to its public funding. That case is predicated on the designer’s assertion – and that’s all it is – that the bridge will ease peak time congestion at Waterloo Station. According to Heatherwick and his funders at Transport for London, the improved walking experience afforded by the Garden Bridge will incentivise commuters to walk instead of taking the Tube.

Heatherwick's Garden Bridge

Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge

Source: Arup

To accept this, one would have to see the Bridge as so much more than a piece of infrastructure – this is social engineering by design. It won’t work. That is not how commuters behave. To the frazzled commuter only one thing matters: point-to-point journey time. To the extent that the Bridge reduces journey time, it will be used by commuters. If it doesn’t, it won’t – and it is patently absurd to suggest that it will. Waterloo is now the busiest station in Britain. Anyone who was willing to substitute away from public transport started walking across one of the existing bridges a long time ago. Some of those people might be diverted to a new bridge, but it is preposterous to suggest that a pretty garden will make a meaningful impact on the rush hour crush of Waterloo Station.

However beautiful the Bridge may be, Heatherwick can no more make a commuter stop to smell the roses than Kathryn Gustafson could force a six-year-old to quietly contemplate the meaning of Princess Diana.

At any rate, the Diana Memorial Committee didn’t buy it. Neither did then-Mayor Ken Livingstone. The right decision was made. The Garden Bridge went back in its box.

There it stayed for a decade. Then two things happened around 2012 that brought the project back to life: the second phase of the High Line launched in New York City and London hosted the Summer Olympics.

If the Garden Bridge ignores the lesson of the London Olympics, it completely subverts those of the High Line

London 2012 was significant for two reasons. First, the city was filled with a renewed sense of can-do optimism after four years of crisis and recession. Second, in the moment that that circle of petals rose to produce the Olympic cauldron, Thomas Heatherwick’s reputation went stratospheric. He went from trendy designer to trending celebrity. George Osborne and Boris Johnson were no longer potential clients for a jobbing design studio. They were fans.

The real lesson of the London Olympics should have been self-explanatory. We did not build infrastructure specifically for the event; we used the event to accelerate the delivery of infrastructure that the city already needed. That principle was at the heart of the Legacy promise that won us the Games. The idea of defined ‘need’ was central to the Olympic project. Does London need it? Does the city have a use for it after the Games? They were questions that hung over every major decision.

The 2012 Olympic Stadium

The 2012 Olympic Stadium

Source: Anthony Charlton

The Garden Bridge flies in the face this principle. The Trust has never produced a convincing argument about why we need it. When pressed to articulate what problem it solves, supporters will respond with some lyrical beauty-for-its-own-sake blather. In truth, it does not pass the ‘do we need it’ test on any level. We don’t need another pedestrian link there; we don’t need another tourist attraction there; and we certainly don’t need publicly funded economic stimulus of the North Bank. The most audacious aspect of the Garden Bridge is the fact that its funding is predicated on an economic argument so hollow that you have to admire their chutzpah for even suggesting it. A child could see through it.

While London was still basking in the aftermath of a successful Olympics, the word was spreading about how successful New York City’s High Line was. The success of the High Line was the final piece of the jigsaw for the Garden Bridge team. The national mood was buoyant, Heatherwick was becoming a household name, they had political patrons and celebrity backers, and now they had a project that they could point to as a model. New York City has one. Why don’t we?

The Garden Bridge Trust is increasingly forced to fend off professional criticism and a large protest movement

If the Garden Bridge ignores the lesson of the London Olympics, it completely subverts those of the High Line. Much has already been written about how different the Garden Bridge and the High Line actually are. They are both elevated linear gardens. That is where the similarities end.

The High Line was the product of a grassroots movement to prevent the demolition of an existing structure. The Garden Bridge is the top-down imposition of a massive construction project to build a new piece of unnecessary infrastructure. The High Line was situated in an off-pitch area of economic deprivation. The Garden Bridge connects a South Bank that is already heaving to a North Bank that is already rich.

In what has become a bit of a stump speech, Thomas Heatherwick revealed just how little he understands the placemaking dimensions of the High Line. He has a lovely turn of phrase about it: “it doesn’t go from anywhere, to anywhere,” he likes to point out. Does that make the Garden Bridge even better, as it is not just a destination in its own right, but is also (in his mind) an important transport link between the North and South Banks? That seems to miss the point. The High Line’s ‘nowhereness’ is the beauty of it. That’s what makes it special. That’s what makes it an inspired act of urban regeneration. It doesn’t have to connect two places. The High Line is the place. It’s the destination. That’s why we call it placemaking.

New York's High Line

New York’s High Line

Source: Ed Yourdon

The principle of placemaking brings us back to the South Bank and, specifically, to the London Eye. The London Eye has recently become the obligatory benchmark for the Garden Bridge Trust, which is increasingly forced to fend off professional criticism and a large protest movement.

The party line – parroted almost verbatim in interviews by Heatherwick and by Trust chairperson Bee Emmott – is to remind us that people were also critical of the London Eye before it was built. Look how wonderful that turned out. The subtext is that all the noisy objection is just the inevitable reaction of some NIMBY parochial simpletons that cannot fully grasp the Vision.

Never has a project of this scale and significance so artfully dodged the traditional rules of funding, procurement, and due diligence

The Garden Bridge, however, is no more like the London Eye than it is like the High Line. Context matters. Think about when the London Eye was approved and what the South Bank was like. In the mid-1990s, intrepid tourists were still being warned away. There was no Jubilee Line, no Tate Modern, no Millennium Bridge, no Shakespeare’s Globe. The only dedicated pedestrian link was the original Hungerford Bridge, which was in such a derelict state that crossing it felt like part of the whole death-defying threat to person and property that constituted an ill-advised trip to that perilous land ‘south of the river’. If developing the London Eye was a risk, it was – back then – a risk worth taking.

That risk was mitigated by the fact that the London Eye was only consented for a five-year period. If it all went horribly wrong, that massive intervention on the London skyline was fully reversible. The financial risk was further mitigated by its funding structure. The only reason that the London Eye is today perceived to be successful is that British Airways – not the taxpayer – quietly chose to write off a crippling pile of debt. This is yet another lesson that the Labour team of Sadiq Khan and Lib Peck have conveniently chosen to ignore, as they trumpet their ‘success’ in substituting £20 million of Transport for London grant for a 50-year low interest loan. With the taxpayer simultaneously lending the money and then guaranteeing repayment of its own loan, this ‘win’ was nothing more than financial sleight-of-hand, followed by facetious political grandstanding.

The London Eye

The London Eye

Source: Hayes Davidson

The situation today is, in any event, completely different. The Garden Bridge Trust claims that the Bridge will bring new tourists to the South Bank. It will. So what? It is already one of the most heavily trafficked tourist destinations in the country.

It will supposedly improve the public realm around Temple and Aldwych. So what? Those are some of the wealthiest landowners, developers and landlords in the country – if they can’t manage and maintain their own public realm, should we really be rewarding them with new infrastructure at public expense?

In today’s context, in a complete reversal of the situation that delivered the London Eye, the Garden Bridge is all risk and no reward.

In truth, it is difficult to find a true comparator for the Garden Bridge. Having worked on the development, delivery and operation of new destinations across the UK, I have never seen a project quite like this one. Never has a project of this scale and significance so artfully dodged the traditional rules of funding, procurement, and due diligence. We have never seen a project this controversial so comprehensively co-opt the media, where the shameless cheerleading of the Evening Standard is surpassed only by Sky’s supposed ‘reporting’ of a project that it is simultaneously funding. Nor has a major capital project advanced so far on the strength of a business case so weak. In all of these ways, the Garden Bridge is genuinely unique.

Dan Anderson is a director and co-founder of Fourth Street, a leading London-based consultancy that advises public and private sector destination developers

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Readers' comments (2)

  • well said

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  • The Garden Bridge might yet have another unforeseen effect - on British politics, not just on the London 'hot house'.
    I think that many people (and not just in Scotland, where I live) will see this project's history as symbolising a great deal of what they perceive as wrong with the country - a London-centric culture of cronyism, greed and excess set against a nation-wide climate of savage cut-backs in public spending, and of creeping poverty and hardship impacting on a steadily increasing proportion of the population.
    The potential for fuelling the growth of existing resentment and division is there - and will doubtless be exploited, particularly by fervent nationalists in Scotland (at least) and by those aware of the simmering resentment in the North and Southwest of England, where a severe infrastructure deficit is being treated by Westminster more with opportunistic and cynical hot air than any real commitment to action.

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