A reason why the London Garden Bridge might be a good thing

The London Garden Bridge is fairly hotly debated. On the face of it, a tree lined bridge sounds pretty cool. It has upset a good number of people though. Why?

Chatsworth Garden
Dan Pearson, the designer of the Garden Bridge planting, unveiled the globally acclaimed Chatsworth show garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May 2015

There have been lots of arguments against, mainly due to a large chunk of its funding coming from public money at a time that the horticulture industry has faced huge cuts. Primarily cuts in the care of London parks and cuts in science funding at Kew Gardens – two cuts that I agree are a mistake.

We don’t live in a black and white world though, and stopping the funding of the bridge won’t divert that money back to where the cuts were made. In a metropolis like London, £120 million is actually small fry, spent every day. Usually on greying Britain rather than greening it. If the green is stopped, the grey will continue going up all over the place, costing billions.

It feels like horticulture is shooting itself in the foot by some being a little shortsighted. To secure more funding in the future, we need to convince people that don’t care about horticulture, botany or simply gardening, that these things do matter. Sadly, if you don’t already think plants and nature matter, you are highly unlikely to go out of your way to visit (i.e. will never go to) Kew, RHS Wisley, Chelsea Flower Show or other places that could open your eyes. But you might glance at a new landmark.

What the best in horticulture needs to do is take a garden spectacle and plonk it in front of everyone’s faces. The Garden Bridge is that spectacle, slammed right in the middle of the most photographed part of tourist London, and on the doorstep of those in control of the budgets in Westminster.

And it would be a spectacle – a hovering garden of trees above one of the most famous rivers in the world. Visited and photographed by millions. Its opening will smother the media. Designed by Dan Pearson, who showed the horticultural world (and only the horticultural world, for reasons stated above) what he could do at the Chelsea Flower Show 2015.

If we’re to convince people that gardening, greening, conservation is important, we need new tactics. We need to be bold. Look at the Victorian era, a time when nature and plants were the height of fashion. The Victorians built Crystal Palace as a temporary structure to house The Great Exhibition. An extravagant event to showcase weird and wonderful plants, latest tech and art. Housed under a truly extravagant glass house.

The Garden Bridge is big and bold and might just get people to take notice of the beautiful things nature has to offer in the most unnatural place in Britain.

Rather than criticise it, why not work with it and improve it. Why not help fund it? Shape it into the Trojan horse it could be, delivering a message to Westminster and the masses alike.

(Update: I just wanted to re-emphasise that this is a blog post about benefit of having a horticultural showpiece as a mainstream talking point for people not already interested in gardens. I am interested in encouraging more people to garden and love nature, I am not defending or wanting to be involved in discussion about the bridge’s funding – enough of that is happening on Twitter already.)

6 thoughts on “A reason why the London Garden Bridge might be a good thing

  1. Good post. You make a better case for the public benefit (at least in horticultural terms) than anything ever uttered by the Garden Bridge Trust.

    I am still not convinced though, for a number of reasons. Although everything that you say may be true, it does not change the fact that in order to get this built, the Mayor raided London’s transport budget (for the simple reason that that is the only budget over which he has any authority). Thus a completely false and disingenuous transport argument had to be retrospectively conjured to justify the funding. And it really is absurd, given that the GB is wedged in between seven other bridges, two of which you could practically reach out and touch. It is the LIE at the heart of the project that grates as much as the issue of public funding itself. As the pollsters said to Bill Clinton: “They can forgive the adultery, but they can’t forgive the lie”. The fact that a few people with privileged access to politicians have managed to bend the system to their own end is the thing that has really aggravated people.

    Second, all of the benefit that you describe in this article could be achieved — and at much better value — in a location that would benefit more. The South Bank is HEAVING with people — it does not need and further stimulation of tourism. The North Bank at Temple is one of the most affluent parts of the country. Do they really need £60 million of public infrastructure to do the job that they are too selfish, greedy and short-sighted to do themselves? It is galling to think that our money is being spent to beautify a part of the city that is already SO beautiful that it is only affordable to the super-rich. This is where the Garden Bridge is a million, million miles from the High Line, which at least drove up the property values of lower middle class households in the meatpacking district.

    If the same funding was put into the same or a similar project, but in a more deserving location, I would probably see past the deceit through which it was secured. As it stands, they lied about a transport case to build a beautiful garden in a part of the city that, quite frankly, can afford to beautify its own public spaces.

    So, no, I’m afraid I’m not buying it. It is a solid argument, well made, but the public benefit you describe is not enough to make this rotten project palatable.

    Nice try though. The GBT should be paying you instead of their disastrous PR consultants!

  2. Thanks Mark – I certainly don’t hope to convince people who feel misled by the funding. And I’m not even defending it (my point isn’t really about funding). I think it would be better to either be completely public funded or completely private funded. Not a mix of both.

    This post is more about the importance of making a statement about horticulture in a place where non-horticultural people are. So basically, fish where the fishes are. Which means South Bank is exactly the perfect place to build it.

    High Line in New York is interesting. That did work, but it is still in an equally central part of the city. I would argue however, that it has not achieved what I think the Garden Bridge could achieve in terms of promotion of horticulture. The High Line is visited as an attraction yes, but it is only revered by people who know who Piet Oudolf is… I.e. the already converted.

  3. Okay, point taken, this post is about the horticulture, not the funding or the politics. And, to be fair, while Heatherwick and Lumley are constantly lobbying (and lying) about the “economic benefits” of the bridge, I have only ever heard Dan Pearson talk about the planting. I do give him some credit for that.

    But on the point of “fishing where the fishes are”, I am still dubious. I don’t know much about horticulture, but I am willing to bet that the same markets that visit the south bank centre and the national theatre and Tate modern are the ones that go to the Chelsea flower show and all of the other RHS shows. At the very least, there will be significant overlap.

    What’s more the bridge lands within walking distance of St. James’s Park, which bleeds into Green Park, which bleeds into Hyde Park. It is hardly any area that is lacking for parks and gardens.

    So sticking with your thesis, wouldn’t our energy and resources be better spent in greening those areas that (a) are lacking green space, and (b) are rich in markets that tend NOT to visit gardens and flower shows? The Peckham Coal Line project, for example, strikes me as a much worthier concept in that respect.

    And there will be those that say, yes, the more the merrier, we should do that one too. But I’m sorry — in that case — the funding argument cannot be set aside. £60 million spent on a garden bridge — which requires a massive piece of hard infrastructure to produce a relatively small garden — is £60 million that cannot be spent on doing something similar in another location.

    Just a thought…

    1. Hi Mark,
      Yeah, there probably are other places something could be made. I don’t think somewhere like Peckham would reach as many people as it doesn’t get the same footfall, but it would be a cool addition there.
      At the end of the day, people are extremely angry about it, and if gardeners and people in horticulture don’t support it, it will never achieve what I think it could achieve – it needs their backing for that to work. I just wanted to point out there is a few good things about it. In particular, that it could be used as a tool to make the public of the UK actually care about horticulture, leading to funding increases in the future. Even if the details of how the bridge is built could be ironed out better.
      And I certainly don’t blame people for having feelings and concerns about the funding, I’m not saying your concerns aren’t warranted. I do share some myself.
      It just feels a shame that it is so hated, that a good idea is totally destroyed. I’d rather people petition for it to be 100% private or 100% public funded than just end the project.

  4. Great article well done – the garden part of the garden bridge has the potential to really capture the public imagination. Dan Pearson has already began tagging trees and Willerby Landscapes are setting up a 1:1 mock up in their nursery, so it may be that people can also get engaged long before the bridge opens.
    RSPB – slightly begrudgingly as they were backtracking on a previous ‘anti-bridge’ position – came to a similar conclusion about pots of funding in its article, ‘London’s garden bridge considers a greener option (http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/details.aspx?id=398478); ‘The cost of the bridge is considerable and a similar level of funding directed at giving nature a home in London, or elsewhere, could undoubtedly have a very significant impact. However, the bridge is not claiming to solve the problems facing London’s biodiversity. As such, the public funding that has been earmarked for the bridge would have been very unlikely to have been directed towards supporting biodiversity elsewhere.’
    The funding of the bridge is being used as a big political football at the moment and distracts from these sort of topics unfortunately. The TfL and Treasury funds were confirmed nearly 2 (two!) years ago in 2013, before the end of pre-planning consultation and a year before Lambeth and Westminster both granted the project planning permission in 2014 – yes allocation of funds is important but in this case it’s certainly not a shocking new revelation. The Garden Bridge cannot keep shouldering the blame for the lack of funding for every other worthy cause.
    We need to move on – two funding facts I wish more people thought about are (i) the £30M Treasury funding covers the £26M in VAT being paid by the project that goes straight back to government reducing the actual public contribution from £60M to around £34M, and (ii) £20M of that public contribution has already been spent (as planned and set out in the funding agreement) over the last two+ years on planning, design, ground investigation, surveys, land agreements and more recently pre-construction with the selected contractor. The model of providing public funds to enable private investment is a challenging and relatively new concept – I look at the Garden Bridge and see a £34M public contribution enabling an amazing £175M bridge and think it’s an utter bargain!
    I can’t wait until people start getting excited about the Garden Bridge garden and horticulture – it will engage a much wider section of the public and in a new and wholly positive way. So congratulations again on your article – putting your head above the parapet on this project generally attracts multiple showers of rocks from the side-lines so is not for the faint hearted!

    (declaration of interest – leading the Arup/Heatherwick/Dan Pearson design team!)

  5. My apologies, as I know that the author is keen to stick with the subject of horticulture, leaving the funding and politics out of it. But I cannot not comment on the previous comment, because it lies at the heart of the issue that has been raised.

    Jack considers it unfortunate that the bridge ‘is so hated’ and that that hate could end up scuppering a project with many worthwhile attributes. I submit that the Garden Bridge Trust has done itself no favours by responding to perfectly legitimate concerns with utter contempt and arrogance.

    Yes, the funding was agreed 2 (two!) years ago, but much information has come to light since then through dogged research and FOI requests of a few journalists. We have learned about the personal lobbying of the Mayor by a contractor and his celebrity pals; we’ve learned about an illegal procurement process; we’ve experienced the Trust’s pitiful, PITIFUL excuse for ‘public consultation’; we’ve read a business case for the bridge that is not worth the paper it’s printed on; we’ve seen the Mayor of London do a complete u-turn on a previous pledge not to commit transport funds to bridge’s operation; and more. And despite Jack’s correct observation that the bridge is ‘so hated’ we have been force-fed a diet of lies about ‘80% of Londoners’ supporting the project, which is the product of phong polling and jumped-up spin machine.

    Now Mr Leslie-Carter wants us to accept that this is all good value because most of the money has been spent already and, to paraphrase, it’s all a little bit late to complain about it now. Well, I’m sorry, but it has taken that long to prise the truth from an organisation that is inherently secretive and uncommunicative despite living for two years on taxpayer funds. THAT is why the project is so hated.

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