The Garden Bridge
On a wave of public support and government backing, the Garden Bridge looks like it might actually happen. In this blog, Dan Anderson asks what purpose it serves and whether we should fund it.For the avoidance of doubt, let me say at the outset that I think the proposed Garden Bridge is a brilliant idea. I love the design by Thomas Heatherwick and I admire its adventurous spirit. If and when built, it will no doubt be one of London’s great destinations – an icon to sit alongside Tower Bridge, St Pauls, the London Eye and Big Ben as one of the great defining symbols of London.That said…I don’t think it is deserving of public funding. And public funding to the tune of £60 million is, in the words of Woody Allen, “a travesty of a mockery of a sham”.It is a lovely thing to have, I’m sure, and when the ribbon is cut, I’ll be the first one across. But placed in Central London – connecting the hyper-affluent North Bank to the ultra-vibrant South Bank – it is a pure luxury.Central London is like a black hole. It so dense with ‘stuff’ that nothing can escape its gravity – least of all tourists, who might otherwise spend a bit of their time and money in outer London locations that need it so much more.People seem so mesmerised by the audacity of the Garden Bridge that no one ever talks about its inherent contradictions. The same people who celebrate its ‘boldness’ are the ones that pour scorn and criticism on the Cable Car and the Floating City in the Royal Docks. Say what you want about those projects, but they are certainly bold. How bold is it really to stick a £150 million monument in a part of the city so stuffed with monuments that you can’t move for bumping into one?The same people that champion this project as further proof that London is the greatest city on earth then turn around and seethe with anger at all the foreign money that is pricing ‘real’ Londoners out of Central London. They talk about ‘market failure’ and demand public intervention to somehow fix the housing market. But the market isn’t failing at all. The market is doing exactly what markets are supposed to do – it is sending a very clear message about supply and demand. And that message is, quite simply: everybody wants to live in Central London, because that’s where all the stuff is. The more important corollary to that message is, of course: nobody wants to live in outer London, because there is nothing to do there. Instead of showering such largesse on that one part of the city that everyone from London to Hong Kong via Dubai already wants a piece of, couldn’t we try to make some of London’s other neighbourhoods a bit more ‘liveable’?Indeed, what makes the whole exercise so galling is the ease with which the decisions seem to be made. One gets the distinct impression that it was all sorted out in a couple of meetings. One look at the model and Boris was so hypnotised by its beauty that he hurled the TFL piggy bank at the wall. Meanwhile, it takes years of hard graft and stoic determination to wring tiny sums out of meagre public budgets for worthier projects in areas that far more desperately need them. Those projects are always subjected to painstaking scrutiny and months of due diligence, rigorously challenged to demonstrate ‘need’ and ‘additionality’. But throw another bridge across the river – in a part of the city already connected by 8 other bridges – and we can’t write the cheque fast enough. What ‘need’ does the Garden Bridge fulfil exactly? How many ‘additional’ tourists will it bring to a destination that already attracts tens of millions of tourists every year? How much ‘quality of life’ can the residents of WC2 handle before they just melt into a puddle of glee? Can that part of London get any more ‘vibrant’ before it starts spinning?This project reminds me of the early days of the London Olympic bid, long before we all succumbed to Olympic fever and back when public opinion was still 50/50. A common refrain at that time was that the Olympics would ‘put London on the map’. That just made me laugh. There were lots of reasons why London should have bid and those have largely been vindicated. But putting London on the map was patently not one of them. The 1994 Winter Olympics put Lillehammer on the map. The ’98 Olympics put Nagano on the map. When – in the last 2,000 years – has Londinium not been on the map?In fact, if the Olympics demonstrated anything, it is the scale of the challenge and the level of investment that is needed to genuinely regenerate deprived areas of outer London that are trapped in the shadow of St Pauls and Big Ben and the Eye and the Tate and all of the other world class attractions that make Central London such a great place to spend our time and our money. Instead of learning that lesson and throwing our imagination, effort and resources into placemaking projects that can make a real difference, we actually invoke the ‘Olympic Spirit’ in support of yet another icon, wedged with almost perfect symmetry in between all of the other icons. London needs bold, creative projects like Floating Cities and Crystal Palaces and giant Domes and Fab Labs. But if they are going to receive vast handouts of public money, then they should be in places that need them, places that will genuinely benefit.I love the Bridge, Boris, and I can’t wait to cross it. I just don’t want to pay for it.