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Why Do We Hate The Garden Bridge?

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.

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  1. Here’s a petition against the Garden Bridge; I do hope you take time to sign it thanks:

    https://www.change.org/p/eric-pickles-eric-pickles-put-the-garden-bridge-where-it-s-needed-without-using-public-funds-or-scrap-the-idea

    There’s so much more wrong with it e.g. the South Bank cannot take any more visitors; it’s full to capacity already. This project simply isn’t needed and the luvvies’ choice of location is arrogant beyond belief.

    The river is our biggest natural open resource and this is the last place where it needs building over. especially given that there are 5 bridges that already span this one mile stretch of the Thames.

    The ‘bridge’ is a shrub lined mostly concrete path with less than 2,500m2 of green space i.e. less than 1/2 football pitch. That’s not a garden.

    TfL have committed £34m so far; TfL Commissioner Peter Hendy said in 2013 that only £4m would be spent (wasted) by TfL to bring about the project then Boris overruled him by adding £30m more. I suspect the maintenance of £3.5m per year will fall upon us – the public . It’s worth noting for some perspective that the Hungerford Bridge’s maintenance costs are only £800k p.a. and the Millennium Bridge only cost £22m to build; the proposed Pimlico /Battersea pedestrian/cycle bridge £40m.

    And as you say, the Garden Bridge Trust and TfL have been massively dishonest throughout. They failed to consult anyone living on the South Bank despite Waterloo being a heavily residential area. They’ve presented flawed figures and have led the public astray with false information and deceiving propaganda. I suspect this kind of money is small change for the likes of Lord Davies, Lumley, Boris and their chums but I wonder how much of they’re contributing to it?

    • I wish you luck in your petition!

      Although it’s worth nothing that TfL were mainly responsible for the bridge’s location (I agree, it’s a naff one), that size doesn’t make a garden, planning permission regulations have been followed (although at a worrying speed), and presumably , and the majority of the maintenance costs are due to tending the garden and keeping the trust (who’s primary responsibility, ironically, is raising the £3.5m a year needed to fund themselves)- which makes comparisons to more traditional infrastructure a bit unfair.

      At the very least, though, I think it’s position as “infrastructure” should be duly considered.

      • Frank Davidson

        TfL weren’t primarily responsible for the bridges location, the landowners were – they stand to make a very handsome profit from a piece of open space they are otherwise unable to gain from commercially. To explain – there is a completely unnecessary 600m2 café at the base of the bridge, on which the stairs rise. At this location, with £7m tourists and no other commercial operation in sight, it will be worth well over £500k p.a. in income. And the Trust think they will raise £1m p.a. renting out the roof of this space, so it’s quids in all round!

        As for the £3.5m running costs, other bridges in central London cost between £500k-£800k p.a. in cyclical maintenance, but they also estimate £800k on security and operations costs – as well as £1m for running the Trust (huh?!? I don’t get that either. Is this a registered charity where the directors are paid in gold bars?)

  2. Yola Dragon

    There is another reason that engineers dislike it and that is because it is a clunky structure with all its structural elements hidden by cladding. All the other bridges over the Thames in London, with the single notable exception of Tower Bridge, express their structural elements and are more honest and beautiful for it.

    Many modern footbridges, such as the Millennium footbridge, are exhilarating, sparse and beautiful structures. By comparison the Garden Bridge is a lumpen design that intrudes unnecessarily on a fine view. I do hope that it is not built.

  3. Garry Walton

    Impractical and in the wrong place, impossible to run or cycle over. A tourist gizmo… That’s what I Iove about it.
    Build it and they will come.

  4. nicholas hills

    I agree. There might be more relevance in having a bridge over a network of busy roads where the greenery would serve to mitigate exhaust from a thousand cars, but over the river at this point it seems irrelevant. Might it revive the joys of Vauxhall or Ranelagh? Pleasure is now to be found in underground dance clubs. Would it enable the jaded city worker a break from his eyer watering screen? London’s minions would rather rush off to Pinner or Billericay to be with their loved ones.
    Frankly it’s prospect will be an arch and soggy trudge when its drainage blocks and the inevitable cost of custodians means the gates are locked against all comers.

Trackbacks

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