London’s garden bridge will be a jewel in a great world city that is still let down by its public spaces. Our streets and squares – places that should be for people – are still dominated by cars, and blighted by poor paving and street furniture.
The Thames, passing through the heart of London, is part of this problem. For many years it was an industrial river, and its south bank was a no-go area. Now the river has been cleaned up and the South Bank is one of the great urban promenades of the world, but we still have far fewer bridges in the centre than Paris has; the river is still a barrier rather than a setting for city life.
Thomas Heatherwick’s brilliant garden bridge will enhance our public realm and reconnect the city, strengthening London’s renaissance, celebrating the river, creating an oasis of calm and beauty, and opening up new perspectives on London – for locals and visitors alike.
The bridge is perfectly located in the heart of London. It’s a vital meeting point, a hinge between central London’s neighbourhoods. On the north bank, Aldwych (which will also be partially pedestrianised) marks the transition from Covent Garden theatres to Temple legal chambers. On the other axis, walking routes lead north through Bloomsbury and Lincoln’s Inn, to King’s Cross and Euston. But this route comes to a dead end at Aldwych; the Thames lies unnoticed down a dingy side street over a fast-moving high street. This is where the garden bridge starts.
On the south side of the river, the bridge will land on the spectacular riverside walkway that has done so much for what was once a no-go area, crossing the river where there is a 900m gap between existing bridges, and offering Londoners a new stitch across the river, as well as an unrivalled moment of calm and beauty in the middle of the hubbub of a busy city.
I have to confess to unfinished business along this stretch of the Thames. In the late 1970s, we were asked to redesign an office development on Coin Street, between Waterloo and the riverfront. We proposed a new bridge over the Thames, just a few metres east of the garden bridge’s location. Our proposals got caught in the cross-fire between developers, the local community and the GLC, and were never built. Ten years later, in my Royal Academy exhibition London As It Could Be, I set out a strategy to make central London a more humane city. I proposed pedestrianising Trafalgar Square, building pedestrian bridges and creating a linear park along the north side of the Thames, to replace the four-lane highway that blocks the river with a torrent of traffic or a parking lot for coaches. I still believe this would create an incredible renaissance on the north bank, complementing the south.
The bridge will be a beautiful structure, helping Londoners to rediscover their city, and creating new links between the cultural, academic and legal centres on either side of the Thames.Now we have a renewed opportunity to build a bridge at the very centre of the city, and to use it to create better public space on both sides of the Thames, cementing London’s transition to being a city that is friendly to pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers. Learning from how the High Line revitalised a rundown area of western midtown Manhattan, the bridge is formed of two planters, clad in a warm-coloured metallic skin, with paths meandering through gardens designed by Dan Pearson (who was gold medallist at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show), and viewing points and niches offering secluded space to enjoy the new views over London.
The proposal has been controversial. Every good idea has its opponents. St Paul’s was attacked for its modernism, the Eiffel Tower was described as a useless monstrosity, and the High Line was hated – until it opened, when it became one of New York’s most loved attractions.
And some of the criticism entirely misses the point, or is based on misinformation. The garden bridge will be free to visit and closed off for private events for a maximum of 12 days a year. Building the bridge is not an alternative to building urgently needed river crossings in east London; they were not competitors for a pot of money, and two-thirds of the cost will be raised from donations. In any case, if we accept that road bridges can be publicly funded, why shouldn’t we allocate a fraction of the spending on pedestrian bridges – when walking is the most sustainable way of moving round the city?
There are some restrictions on how the bridge will be used; it offers a meandering promenade, not a superhighway with segregated cycle paths (cycling is also prohibited on the South Bank); limits on the size of crowds are to stop the bridge being swamped by tour groups at peak times (as London becomes a bigger tourist draw, preserving an air of calm will be critical); and closure at night (like all the royal parks) will prevent delicate planting being put at risk of drunken uprooting. If these restrictions do not work, then no doubt they will be revisited, just as the planting itself will be refreshed and retuned over time.
We should not be attacking the garden bridge for what it is not, but should appreciate and celebrate it for what it is – a jewel of public space, a vital new connection, and an oasis at the heart of the city.