Why Do We Hate The Garden Bridge?
People keep trying to pretend it’s a piece of public infrastructure; but it’s really not. And that’s OK. It’s a private theme park (nay, garden), and it is an interesting one.
For those of you who don’t live London adjacent; the capital is remarkably close to getting its very own Garden Bridge– which is exactly what is sounds like: A tiny garden on a strip of artificial land straddling the Thames. While it remains controversial across the general public domain, the people who hate it the most- appear to be engineers.
With one of the main drivers being the massive engineering firm Arup, the project has the shape of something I’ve said civil engineers should be doing- taking control and pioneering the development of our built environment. And while it’s tempting to explain away these feelings as the cliché hatred engineers are supposed to harbour for anything that exhibits form before function- this week I’ve decided to take Darth’s advice and search my own feelings; to work out just why I hate that garden bridge…
It’s Not A Bridge, and It’s Not A Park
You can’t really use it if your intention is simply to cross the river.
Not every noun should be trusted; peanuts are not nuts, NeverEnding Story has an end and the Garden Bridge isn’t a bridge. Ian Firth, of IABSE fame, has gone on record with the fantastic quote that, as a bridge, it serves neither artistic nor practical criteria; which I wholeheartedly agree with. You can’t really use it if your intention is simply to cross the river; it doesn’t have the capacity to cater for the peak commuter load of today- let alone the future city.
But if you admit it’s not a bridge; and looking back at their Future of Design talk last year, it’s clear it’s not designed to be– these criticisms start to fall down. It’s a tourist attraction. It is not, and this is the second key point, a park- it’s a garden. You can’t cycle across it (famously), form groups or (I suspect) even jog across it- but then; you can’t do that at the Eden Project– can you? Taken as a garden for perusal, that just so happens to span across the river, it starts to look a bit better.
It’s Publicly Funded
Making it free by getting us to prepay for our tickets under the heading “infrastructure” is arguably the most controversial bit of it all.
Accepting that it is not a piece of infrastructure, however, does raise the question; why are we paying for it. The official figure for the bridge is around £175m. Of that TfL are forking out £30m of their already stretched budget to contribute; while the treasury is effectively suspending tax on the construction by adding another £30m- again, against a backdrop of austerity. There’s also a danger that we’ll be hit by a £3.5m annual maintenance liability; the country is always the ultimate underwriter.
The rest is privately funded by investors who want to ‘give London a gift‘ through the Garden Bridge Trust. It’s worth noting, however, that as a charity, there’s a tax avoidance advantage to giving- arguably making the price paid by the public even higher through the lost corporation tax. Despite the public assistance, however, the bridge essentially remains private property– no guaranteed right of way, with closures for sponsored parties.
In an odd way it might have been better if the bridge was ticketed- at least that’d give it a more honest purpose. It would definitely reduce complaints from the rest of the country beyond the capital, who are facing a bill for a luxury they might never see. The London Eye provides a fantastic example of a private entity giving back to the surroundings- with the Southbank Centre receiving £500’000 yearly in rent from the structure. Making it free by getting us to prepay for our tickets under the heading “infrastructure” is arguably the most controversial bit of it all.
It’s Needlessly Expensive
As a profession we owe it to the tax payer (at least) to do our best to reduce the burden our works place on them.
At £25’000/m2, you could get ten bridges and forty parks for the same price. But, returning to my original point- that it’s neither a park, nor a bridge, but a tourist attraction; the comparison isn’t as clear cut- why would private investors want to link themselves with 10 ordinary bridges or 40ha of blank green space across the country? At least half of the money doesn’t exist without something special.
What is important, though, is that independent estimates suggest the bridge could be built for a third of the cost. Although trust chair Paul Morrell replied to the claims churlishly blaming costs on “a long list of issues that you really do need to be working on the project to understand”; worryingly stating that the unusual decision to clad the bridge in “maintenance free” (a term all good engineers should fear) cupro-nickel was the term of a donation (which, it’s fair to assume, doesn’t cover the whole cost).
His response belies that this is a structure where value engineering just hasn’t been applied. This would be fine if the private structure didn’t require £60m of public money to fund (which, by the way, would cover the latest cuts on children’s mental health services); but as a profession we owe it to the tax payer (at least) to do our best to reduce the burden our works place on them, remember- ‘an engineer can do for a penny, what any fool can do for a pound…’ Even if you average the two estimates, you get something that doesn’t need to be publicly funded any more…
We’ve Been Told We Want It
The truth of the matter is, however, that should it get built- it’s hard to imagine people not using it.
The bridge, in its current incantation, began life as a competition run by TfL for an iconic scheme to act as a landmark that supports economic activity, and provide commuters at Waterloo options. It was a scheme initiated by the brains behind the Eremites cable car; possibly London’s only under-utilised piece of infrastructure. And the Garden Bridge won it.
As someone who walks past the site of the new bridge every day, I’ve never thought “well, wouldn’t be it nice to have a garden here…” In fact, it feels very much like Joanna Lumley and Co. have simply decided to build it- and therefore it’ll get built: planning permission seems to be being given at a remarkable rate– despite public uncertainty and the massive impact of the structure.
The truth of the matter is, however, that should it get built- it’s hard to imagine people not using it. Sure, the commuters will probably avoid it, but every tourist will end up meandering along the scenic route. The business case for the bridge makes an interesting read, quoting a return of 3.5 for the bridge; and while it sounds a little ill founded to me, I can’t deny that the Garden Bridge would be a great attraction to add to London’s arsenal…
It’s In An Odd Location
As someone who walks across it every day- it’s not an unmanageably busy route, and it’s also not really in an area that needs economic development.
Why there was a tender to increase the options for people walking from Waterloo station is a bit of a mystery- it’s at the most densely bridged part of the Thames, and putting the bridge there threatens the view of St Pauls, which London holds oddly sacrosanct. As someone who walks across it every day- it’s not an unmanageably busy route, and it’s also not really in an area that needs economic development; the North Bank might be quiet, but it’s rich- the South Bank is a cultural hub for the area with everything from art galleries to pop-up theatres!
There are plenty of stretches along the river that are crying out for bridges and a bit of redevelopment- and it seems a shame to waste this scheme along a length that really doesn’t need it. A lot of detractors mention the uncrossed spans- but these are mostly at residential areas and are unlikely to really warrant an iconic structure. That said, something just outside the London Bridge area, or alongside Battersea could arguably be set to gain from the attraction.
So why do I hate the Garden Bridge? Well, it’s because people keep trying to pretend it’s a piece of public infrastructure; but it’s really not. And that’s OK. It’s a private theme park (nay, garden), and it is an interesting one- more a piece of art than a well engineered structure; but one I’d happily have paid £5.00 to wonder across. If they’d just have been honest about that at the start, then we would have ended up with a unique attraction (hopefully in a better location) without the bitter taste in our mouth.