Do not surrender on bold inexperienced structure, regardless of the folly of London’s Backyard Bridge


London’s proposed “Garden Bridge” no longer exists. After years of controversy, the city’s mayor has finally sunk the idea into the Thames.

The idea of ​​a bridge covered in plants and trees spanning the river had several advantages. But it had to be in the right place, with the right design, and the project had to generate support from local Londoners. Thomas Heatherwick’s suggestion did not seem to be aware of this.

Still, the failure of the Garden Bridge shouldn’t be an excuse to contain our ambitions. To achieve more innovative urban greening in London and beyond, it remains valuable to think bigger, bolder and greener.

In order to actually deliver visions of such urban oases, we should keep dreaming. But we also have to be realistic. Long before such a project even comes into play, architects, politicians and the public have to agree on certain important issues. Who will it belong to at some point? How is it funded? And who can access it?

Do not do that.
The Garden Bridge Trust

The garden bridge was an example of what not to do. A lack of transparency resulted in the project losing around £ 37 million in taxpayers’ money. The amount of private funds lost is unknown. Likewise, the pseudo-public character of the bridge would have restricted access for groups, cyclists and street musicians and instead created a corporate space that is drawn from ongoing public investment.

But this can work, and there are many examples where derelict or wasteland in urban centers has been turned into multifunctional public spaces. Millennium Park in the heart of Chicago was built on a former train station and parking lot. The High Line in New York turned a disused elevated railway line into a park, and there are similar projects in Atlanta and Seoul. Everyone brought the disused transport infrastructure back into public use.

All aboard the High Line.
MikeDotta / Shutterstock

There is now an urge among cities around the world to develop the “next” High Line – the latest proposal is a “Camden Highline” in north London. This enthusiasm for following the success of New York shows how cities want their brands to be associated with projects that are innovative but also environmentally friendly and sustainable.

Get locals on board

One of the big ideas behind the Garden Bridge was to create such an oasis in one of the busiest and most polluted cities in the world. Where successful interventions have taken place, they have been achieved with community support (public and business). Redeveloping the historic 4th Ward Park in Atlanta or the Cheonggyecheon River restoration project in Seoul would be a completely different project without public support. Likewise, the area of ​​the Olympic Park in London is largely open to the public around the clock, which makes it a multifunctional and valuable public space.

Opened in 2005, Cheonggyecheon is an 18 km long park that follows a river through central Seoul.
Ken Niphon / Shutterstock

Even in Milan, where the Bosco Verticale – a pair of tree-covered skyscrapers – shows the architectural value of innovations on private land, it is being complemented by a new public park, allotments and communal spaces. Each of these projects aims to strike a balance between funding, ownership and access in order to limit conflicts of use.

Future projects should therefore take into account what those investments did right and the garden bridge wrong. Developing truly valuable parks and open spaces is a delicate process. It requires a mix of funding from public and private sources but should not be held hostage to the demands of private investors.

Publicly funded projects must meet the needs of the public and should reflect both the local community and wider aspirations at the city level. This can mean negotiating an award-winning design for a more intuitive space that is suitable for the elderly, families, or children. Maggie Daley Park in Chicago is a great example of this.

Slides and skyscrapers in Maggie Daley Park.
f11photo / Shutterstock

It must also be ensured that ownership is transparent and that everyone knows their rights of use. This should be public, not private, as there is a wealth of evidence highlighting the social, health, and economic value of accessible parks and gardens.

After all, the garden bridge should be a warning for future investments. There are many projects in London, across the UK and around the world that have worked with various partners to successfully design, develop and manage parks and open spaces. You’ve managed to understand the needs of local communities, work with complex design and funding issues, and negotiate property and access rights. We should promote these projects as best practice examples of what makes a good public park. As they (almost) say, one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch.