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Should London's South Bank have a garden bridge?

Is the proposed  Garden Bridge by Thomas Heatherwick and Joanna Lumley, working with Arup and Dan Pearson, a good idea? And is it in the right place?

Tom Jonson, Associate landscape architect, URS Infrastructure and Environment UK. - Profile photo ©: Horus Communications

There are so many elements to consider in terms of the proposed Garden Bridge, including its function, location and  indeed whether it meets the requirements of the local community, but in the short space available I am going to consider purely its visual effect. This visual appreciation should not be based on whether I personally like the bridge or not, but on whether it conforms to established aesthetic urban design criteria.

Attributes such as those identified by Jack L Nasar in The Evaluative Image of the City (1998) that could be applied to the bridge’s aesthetic include naturalness, upkeep, openness and defined space, historic significance and order. At first glance the bridge appears to satisfy a number of these criteria, but it is difficult to be sure until the scheme has been developed further.

Because people travelling along the existing Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges will also see the new bridge, the kinaesthetic experience should also be considered. Those existing bridges are particularly important because they afford panoramic views of the city across the Thames, and the new Garden Bridge will have special significance within these views.

Despite the Garden Bridge’s strategic location in the heart of the city, it is encouraging to see that public support for the concept is high. This includes figures such as George Osborne who has confirmed that the Treasury may contribute £30 million towards the project. This support is however supprising when one considers that even as early as the late 1800s city planners such as Camillo Sitte (1843–1903) found that the inhabitants of Europe had lost the thread of artistic tradition in city planning. He was concerned that the populations of European towns and cities struggled to find a way of life that had sufficient vigour to promote large scale projects of artistic integrity.

Even though public opinion towards public art has changed and other European cities have gained an appetite for large-scale artistic intervention, Seville’s Metropol Parasol being one of the most recent examples, UK cities and in particular London don’t seem to have acquired the same enthusiasm. Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture at the Olympic Park is a notable exception, although it has been heavily criticised.

Whilst the Garden Bridge project will finally provide an opportunity for the capital to embrace this tradition on the grandest of scales, the project does have its critics, and as a result needs to address concerns such as location, exclusivity, and also issues such as meeting regeneration objectives.

If the scheme does go ahead, it will undoubtedly become an extremely popular attraction and provide London with its equivalent of the New York High Line. I just hope however that the bridge meets its aesthetic expectations and is as elegant as the Kingsgate Bridge in Durham, a pedestrian footbridge designed by Ove Arup in 1963.

Alex Rook, Community planner and landscape architect.

Do we need another pedestrian bridge in central London?
I think so; but what type of bridge is the key question. 

The Millennium bridge was the first new pedestrian crossing of the Thames in a century, attracting up to 100 000 people on its first day of opening, and has remained enormously popular. Connecting the very different Tate Modern and St Paul’s, the bridge acts almost as a tightrope, in tension between the two.

Between Embankment and the South Bank, the Jubilee bridges have created a magical viewpoint of the city from the middle of the river, where previously one scurried across the functional, narrow, dark, and often puddled, walkway clipped to the southern side of the railway.

I have long thought that a similar connection between the Temple and the South Bank would provide a stimulating link – and tension – between the vibrant culture of the South Bank and the staid seat of the law in the Temple and Inns of Court. However, a green bridge, a planted bridge, seems quite wrong for a number of reasons.

The green bridge over Mile End Road linking two parts of the linear park seemed like a logical concept; in reality it is less successful. The depth of soil required to support any substantial planting produces a cumbersome big-bellied bridge. It has been replanted several times as large trees have failed to flourish. How much more difficult to succeed within the microclimate of the tidal Thames.

There is something disconcerting about trees on any kind of structure above ground, whether that is a roof or a bridge. Trees are such rooted things, giving us a sense of being grounded, of scale, and of both the passing of time and longevity, that they seem precarious perched above ground, uncomfortably out of their depth. The successes of the High Line in New York, and before that the Promenade Plantée in Paris, are different somehow, the structure more intimately woven into the fabric of the city, unearthed and rediscovered as
a place for people.

A planted bridge over fast moving water seems to me an anomaly. A bridge is not a park. It may be a place to dwell and dawdle, but it is fundamentally a means of connecting two places. It is outward facing, a place from which to admire the view; balancing connection with a look out; it is a place of transience, a prospect not a refuge, especially over water. It should therefore be the most efficient and elegant of structures; it does not need the distraction of swaying plants.

I remember, probably over a decade ago now, that when MacCormac Jamieson Pritchard (now MJP Architects) was looking at improvements to Victoria Embankment, it came up with the idea of linking Temple with South Bank by means of a cable car. Googling it today, I was delighted to see that the idea has been revived1 by David Prichard and Neil Deely (now as partners in Metropolitan Workshop) with Adams Kara Taylor as engineer. It would not need to be as high as the Docklands cable car, fun as that is, and would be a lightweight structure that would not block the view in the way a planted bridge would do. It would also be a delightful complement to the London Eye and an attraction in its own right.

Even Wordsworth might approve, and the sense of calm and spaciousness that his famous poem ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ conjures up, be preserved:

‘This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie,
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;’

Christopher Woodward, Director, Garden Museum.

Right bridge, wrong place. Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge could be the happiest gift to London since Tate Modern. It will be a bird’s flight of greenery, suspended above the chug and swell of the Thames as the High Line is suspended above the honk and screech of Midtown New York.

But the bridge should be the centrepiece of a new urban quarter, showing how a fusion of design, horticulture and engineering can be at the heart of place-making. A Garden Bridge dropped into the South Bank will reduce green infrastructure to a treat for tourists and a photo op for a Mayor who likes a one-liner.

The greatest strength of the idea is its inevitability: the project is as much zeitgeist as design. Last year the Landscape Institute held a competition for green infrastructure in London inspired by New York’s High Line. The dominant themes in over 150 entries were vegetation, water – and, above all, The Thames – and how places connect.

Its second strength is its irrationality. We are a nation of folly builders, and our most popular structures embody a stylish escapism, whether it is Bodiam Castle or the Lloyd’s Building. When I cycle over Piers Gough’s garden bridge in East London – that yellow canoe slung over the Mile End Road – it’s a jolt of joy: I want to give the architect a hug. Fantasies of garden bridges date back to the 18th-century Picturesque: the poetry arises from the contrast between the propulsion of movement implicit in an arch, and the dawdling distraction of loose vegetation.

Thirdly, it will be a garden. This is my first grumble. In the promotional video, Heatherwick and Lumley pursue politicians and funders down the corridors of power, a model of the garden in their arms. But there is not a glimpse – or a whisper – of a landscape designer, yet it is Dan Pearson’s genius of spatial and planting design which will make or break the concept. The omission is not personal: Pearson is a star, as we know from standing-room-only talks at the Museum. But it’s sad that the advocates of a garden bridge continue a hierarchy which places at the bottom the greatest art of all: making a landscape over time.

So, where? Two miles west is Nine Elms. The muddy waste between Vauxhall Cross and Battersea Power Station is the biggest development site in London. It’s where the Thames becomes its true self again: muddy, glittering, and vast, able to shrug off the city with a roll of its shoulders. It is also the nation’s battleground for green infrastructure.

Wandsworth Council has inked in a linear park as a centrepiece, and the developers’ brochures sell the rising apartment blocks as ‘London’s High Line Quarter’. Will it happen? Will planners and public make Nine Elms flower, once the estate agents have drawn the blinds? If green loses to grey in Nine Elms, we lose everywhere. But a garden bridge could be a natural component of this vision.

Alternatively, a step east, Lambeth faces the marooned Venetian splendour of Tate Britain. Inspired by the LI’s High Line competition, the Vauxhall Business Improvement District held a competition for the public realm beside the river, won by J + L Gibbons with a design which is visionary but technical, playful and persistent. It is the only masterplan in central London to put landscape design first, and here a new crossing would filter green infrastructure into the daily lives of a neighbourhood.

Green infrastructure is at risk of becoming a box of developers’ tricks which distract us from the deeper battle being fought for the nature of our cities. Very quickly, green walls have become the fig-leaves of a planning system in self-doubt. A garden bridge is a timeless idea. If at last it will happen – and hurrah! – it must express the true depth of green infrastructure. 

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