There is no doubt that the Garden Bridge is causing a lot of discussion across all the social media channels and in the press and that there are a lot of people who believe either that it is a wonderfull thing and equally many who disagree.
When I first heard about it I was thrilled too. Mooted as Londons' equivalent of New Yorks' High Line it sounded like a really innovative and exciting project that could change the way green space is used in London and be an example to other cities both in the UK and worldwide.
Cities are booming, and by 2050 it's estimated that 70% of the UK population will live in an urban area. All around the country cities are addressing how they will manage their green spaces. Visiting Sheffield recently I was lucky enough to visit 2 extraordinarily inspiring projects, The Green Estate and Heeley Park, both of which made me really think about how good design and support for areas that historically have struggled in various ways, is vital in the way we tranform inner city green spaces. These are projects that have changed lives and seen areas with historic problems change themselves through enterprise brought about through good use of the land. I myself am currently working on an inner city project in Bristols' Bearpit roundabout, which is a sunken space in the centre of the city that historically has problems with anti social behaviour, to green the space in a way that will bring an oasis of tranquility to an area that will also be a central hub with food businesses and a vibrant market as well as lots of thought provoking urban art, bringing an unloved and fairly frightening place back into a space that encourages it to be used by all.
These examples, and there are many more, of cutting edge design mixed with the importance of social outcomes are vital if we are to see our cities prosper and the citizens living in them lead healthy lives. Green space is vital for all and it is those that are most vulnerable and for whom getting out into anything that is at all nature like, who often find accessing it the most difficult. For horticulture within cities to be taken seriously, and city councils to see the importance of this in areas of socio economic deprivation and indeed invest in it, any project taking place in the public sphere must have some need for a good social outcome, and for it to effect positive change within the community it is being placed.
At this point I also think it's worth talking a little about New Yorks' High Line, which began as a project that came about through a group of people, now The Friends of the High Line, coming together and finding the space, getting the necessary permissions and bringing the project to fruition. The friends of the High Line are still very much involved in the project and it's worth looking at their website to seee the story of the project as well as the history of the space itself. Their website can be found at www.thehighline.org.
There is no doubt that cities and the way urban greening is being addressed is changing and so I really thought the idea of a new bridge that could be accessed by all and was green in all conotations of the word was wonderful, until I started to hear concerns. The construction of the bridge will mean an area of green space along with 30 mature trees will be lost, at a time when the tree canopy of cities is being looked at and all cities are being encouraged to increase them. Mature trees support a diverse cross section of wildlife and planting new trees nearly doesn't mean that wildlife will remain in the area. The area of planting is apparently only going to be the size of half a football pitch, which makes me wonder what the rest will be used for, and it won't be open to all, 24/7, but be on a timed ticket as it is expected to be so oversubscribed. Apparently this ticket will be free but I wonder who will pay the admin cost? And it is questionable that cyclists will have access to it, or that it will even be used as a bridge in the sense that it will enable people to cross the water from one side to the other as quickly as if the river wasn't there. It will also be closed one day per month for private functions.
However my biggest problem is the fact that £60 million of public money is set to be used for this and it appears that public consultation has been at a minimum. Effectively this is a vanity project, being put into a space where already there are questions over its suitability, that is not there for the people of London or the local area, but for tourists to visit. This is nothing to do with good urban planning or biodiversity, but all about bringing in the tourist dollar. And we are spending public money to do this whilst we have people regularly accessing food banks, more children accessing free school meals than ever before and are still set to see further cuts in public funding going into the future.
With some of Londons' inner city boroughs being the most deprived areas of the UK, I question how this is acceptable. Half of the money is from Transport for London and I am quite convinced that £30million could go towards greening stations if it is money allocated to that, making them safer, kinder spaces.
So here is my main question. What are this projects social outcomes? How is it commited to the community in which it will sit? Where is the public consultation that we should all be able to access?
If in Bristol, when we embark on a new project we have to knock on neighbouring doors, ensure we have a questionnaire that is acceptable for that area and be positive that we can answer any questions with a positive spin, as well as then going through a thorough council assessment with their environmental/allotment/park and gardens departments, what has been the relevant consultation undertaken for this?
At this point I would like to say it's not too late to change all these things. The building of the bridge and the planting and landscaping could be undertaken by local people, giving them new skills, introducing them to horticulture and construction and giving them a sense of ownership. It would still be a beautifully designed space, but one that had given local people a helping hand. It can be maintained by volunteers from the local community who would talk about it with visitors as only someone can who is deeply and emotionally at one with a garden project. It could become inclusive.
I finish with a horrifying statistic. The projected cost of the bridge, in all, is approx £175million. If each of London's 32 boroughs were to share that money between them it would equate to the possibilty of there being 53 community projects in each borough, each with £100,000 to spend.
Now that would have seriously good social outcomes.....