A Garden Bridge Too Far

‘Dear Deserter,’ writes reader, Michelle T. ‘What are your thoughts on the proposed Garden Bridge? I can’t decide. Please tell me what to think.’

Michelle, your wish is our command.

The Garden Bridge: Playful pointlessness for the people, right? No cars, lovely river views, plenty of pauses and reflections and spots for dreaming. It’s main protagonist, Joanna Lumley, proclaims it will be ‘the slowest way to cross the Thames’.

I mean, it’s a garden. On a bridge. Sounds right up our street. Doesn’t it?

So why then, when I convened a Deserter EGM to formulate our official response to it, did we end up with the word ‘SHITFEST’ scrawled across a whiteboard, and in permanent marker too?

We had gathered in one of the private back rooms of The Sheaf, Borough, and I had asked each of the available Deserter crew (Dirty South, Roxy and Half-life) to come prepared with things they like to do in a garden. Our list read as follows:

  • Drink
  • Smoke
  • Barbeque
  • Push each other into bushes
  • Have a kickabout
  • Lie around
  • Have a slash (Half-life)
Beer. Garden
Beer. Garden

Our first sign that the Garden Bridge wasn’t going to live up to expectations was when it turned out that all but one of these archetypal garden activities are barred. That’s right, the Garden Bridge has rules. Lots of rules.

Rules

No booze, for example. No games. No music. No barbecues. And dozens of others including the heartbreaking banning of balloons.

There will be no toilets and, wait a minute, no grass? Groups of eight or more will be required to register in advance to access the bridge. No provision is made for cyclists so they are required to dismount, though that scourge of the South Bank – joggers – will roam free, spraying us with their virtuous sweat.

There is to be no gambling, no singing, no touching, no fishing and no speeches. And probably no skipping, no funny looks, no sarcastic remarks, no farting and no heavy petting. Just like at home.

Cost

Then there’s the cost, currently ringing up at £175m, with £60m from the public purse (split between the Mayor of London and TfL) plus an additional surprise pledge from Mayor Boris that the public will take care of the running costs (estimated at £90m over the lifetime of the bridge). Despite this, the bridge is ‘private land’, to be run by a private company and will not be a public right of way. It will close each evening at midnight (and open, incidentally, at 6am, like we care about that).

In addition, the bridge – our bridge – now costing us at least £150m, will be completely closed to the public for 12 days a year for ‘events’ and the roof of the landing podium will be rented out every weekend, May to October.

The Garden Bridge documents keep referring to ‘visitor numbers’. Visitors? I thought they were crossing the river? You mean they’re going to turn around and come back again?

As you consider the above, the mists clear and you begin to see the Garden Bridge for what it really is: Another fucking tourist attraction.

If you’re in any doubt, consider some of the financial backers that have put their head above the parapet: A fashion shop in W1, for example, and fancy hotel, One Aldwych. Why would an hotel be supporting the attraction if not to bring in some additional numbers to cram into over-priced rooms?

This at least explains its bizarre location.

Crowds

We were wondering why you’d choose to have a bridge in the middle of a two mile stretch (between Westminster Bridge and London Bridge) where there are seven other bridges pedestrians can use. And in a spot that will send vast crowds (up to 2,500 on the bridge and up to the same again in the holding pens) to and from the busy South Bank and the tranquil haven of lawyer’s lodgings at Temple.

It is estimated that seven million trips per year will be made across the bridge, with around half of those new visitors.

Anyone who has experienced the summer crowds on the South Bank will know that the area around the world’s busiest arts complex already makes you feel like an extra in The Mark of Gideon, that episode of Star Trek in which a planet has run out of space.

Captain Kirk takes the Garden Bridge Trust to task for ignoring the over-population nightmare on the South Bank:

Meanwhile, on the other side, the ancient cluster of legal buildings, peaceful squares and gardens that are part of two Inns of Court (and open to all each afternoon) will be over-run by checked-trousered twunts wielding selfie sticks, littering Temple Gardens and piddling in the cloisters. My money says that within a year of the Garden Bridge opening, they’ll be closed to the public.

To make matters worse, the roof of Temple tube station, the proposed north landing platform, is already a lovely, leafy seating area featuring river views and space for quiet contemplation – rather like what the Garden Bridge promises. What’s more, it has recently featured a summer al fresco bar area. We waited years for that to happen, only for it to be summarily turned into a cattle pen. Moo!

asd
Inner Temple Gardens, in the time before the bridge

Environment

But isn’t the bridge all green and environmental and everything? Certainly, another financial backer, mining company Glencore, would like you to believe so, as it attempts to greenwash its tattered reputation with a fragrant front garden while continuing to peddle fossil fuels round the back.

The truth is that in exchange for some lovely shrubs on the bridge more than 30 mature trees will have to be felled on either side of the river to make way for the monstrous landing decks. Not to mention the adverse effect the construction will have on the river’s ecosystem and historic foreshore, one of our favourite spots for a beer picnic.

This isn’t looking good.

Views

Talking of which, the website of Thames Central Open Spaces (TCOS) – an organisation dedicated to preserving London’s urban open spaces – features an interesting ‘before and after’ image of what the bridge will do to some of the wonderful cross-river views currently enjoyed by those on the South Bank. These are the sort of angles that the Garden Bridge Trust themselves seem to have avoided dwelling upon, but were picked up by the London View Framework Management in documents produced for the planning application.

Views of Somerset House, St Paul’s and other historic buildings will be compromised from both the north and south banks, not to mention the Waterloo sunsets.

Garden Bridge - BEFORE
A view
Garden Bridge - AFTER (1)
A view of a bridge

Design

But at least it will look good and be built to last, right?

The bridge’s design has been handed to (Thomas) Heatherwick Studio, the outfit responsible for the striking new Routemaster London buses that combine the experience of sitting fully-clothed in a sauna with the aroma of vomit in a blocked KFC toilet, and which are now about to be retrofitted with windows that actually open, at an additional cost of £2m.

Previously, Heatherwick designed the disastrous B of the Bang, a huge sculpture erected in Manchester to commemorate the 2002 Commonwealth Games which started falling apart before it had even been officially unveiled, shedding its giant metal spikes onto the ground below. That ended up the subject of a seven-figure out-of-court settlement between Heatherwick, the council and the contractors.

Jesus.

Once you have carefully considered all the above (for all of three seconds) you reach the inescapable conclusion that all those behind the Garden Bridge – a heart-sinking combination of politicians, luvvies, brands, lackeys and money-grubbers – must be in it for themselves. Anybody else would have looked at the arguments for and against it and decided, No. Or possibly, Yes, but elsewhere.

Favourite spot for a beer picnic
Favourite spot for a beer picnic

Until this week, the Garden Bridge had an air of fait accompli about it, but the efforts of organisations like TCOS and the Waterloo Community Development Group to ensure that the negative impact of the project is given as much of an airing as the air-brushed utopian dreamscapes, seem to be bearing some fruit – one thing we’ll never see on the Garden Bridge. Lambeth council has withdrawn from lease negotiations about the southern landing point, citing concerns about the spending of public money on the project. (The London Eye, by contrast, did not receive any public subsidy)

There is still time, it seems, to influence the outcome of this vast private folly, a trophy structure masquerading as an open public space. To date, 5000 people have signed the petition at Change.org.

Back in our meeting, staying positive, feeling helpful and emboldened by our second pints we drew up a list of ways to improve the Garden Bridge:

  1. Have some grass on it, for crying out loud. A garden without grass, like a bed without a mattress, is just semantic jiggery-pokery.
  1. Leave it open 24 hours a day like, you know, a bridge or something.
  1. Put a pub in the middle of it. For God’s sake, is it really that hard to think of these things? And not some glitzy mediterranean-style bar either, a pub in a garden shed, in which you can lean awhile and gaze out at the waters.
  1. Finally, and most importantly, build it somewhere where it will be useful and actually galvanise two under-used or out-of-favour areas, not slap bang in the heart of the crowded city, across one of its last remaining open spaces. Our choice would be out east between HMP Belmarsh and Beckton Sewage Works (or if you want to get fancy about it, uptown Thamesmead and Dagenham Sunday Market) where there are currently no bridges for as far as the eye can see in either direction.

‘And what about smoking?’ asked Half-life, still troubled by the rules.

‘You know, it doesn’t say anything about that,’ I said.

‘Right, I’m going to stand in the middle of it and bun myself stupid,’ he said.

‘Shouldn’t take long,’ said Roxy, and with that the EGM was adjourned indefinitely as Half-life chased Roxy round the bar and it was left to me and Dirty South to take down the whiteboard and pack away the Post-it Notes, as usual.

running-man-logo

There’s more on the Garden Bridge on our podcast:

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Image credits: Main image, Arup; Beer garden by Andrea Delfini, used under this licence; Inner Temple Gardens by Sergio Calleja, used under this licence

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