Some thoughts on the Garden Bridge and the murky world of Public/Private Space

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Argggghhh, why won’t this project just roll over and die already?! That’s my first, if slightly unhelpful thought. With news from the National Audit Office today that £22 million of taxpayers’ money could disappear if the bridge is cancelled (which is looking increasingly likely), while much of the £60 million of public money that’s been invested has already been spent, this ill-thought-out, mucky proposal is getting worse by the day. Though I am full of respect for Joanna Lumley’s TV career, when it comes to her public planning career, I haven’t been so keen. Originally conceived as a ‘tribute to Princess Diana’ – a badly designed water feature obviously wasn’t enough – the garden bridge project has been controversial from the get-go. A murky mix of public and private investment, the garden bridge, if it ever gets built, will be another example of ‘privately owned public space’ (POPS for short) to add to London’s growing list. While Garden Bridge supporters have tried to assure the public that private ownership would have little impact on access to the bridge – though there’s been talk of tracking mobile phone signals – the bridge would occasionally be closed for private events during the evening, and would be closed from midnight to 6am every night, meaning it won’t be that useful as an actual bridge. Any form of protest or speech giving would also be prohibited, presumably to stop taxpayers demanding their money back. Nonetheless, the Department for Transport continues to back the project, despite repeated warnings of the financial risks involved, and  even though leading MPs continue to refer to it as ‘Boris’ vanity project’.

While in theory I’m for any scheme that helps bring more plants and trees into London, this really isn’t the way to do it. Given London’s escalating housing crisis, the growing divide between the rich and the poor, and the slow death of the city’s night life, there are much more urgent things to use public money for right now. While bringing beauty into city centres is vitally important, it has to be beauty that benefits everyone and doesn’t come with a string of sub-clauses attached. Projects like this also don’t help London’s standing in the rest of the country, especially when so many vital public services are being cut or closed up and down the country, services that £22.5 million could really benefit.

Projects built solely on the chumminess between celebrities and Tory politicians – with the name of a national treasure thrown in for good measure – clearly set a worrying precedent too. Especially when elsewhere in London, multi-billionaires like Christian Candy have been trying to turn areas of public road into private gardens in the name of ‘increasing green space’. Indeed, as the need for green space in urban settings gains increasing recognition in public discourse, as it rightly should, there is a danger that many privates companies will use this argument in order to take public land out of public hands. Ensuring that public money goes to projects that are fully public and fully transparent is therefore going to be vital if we want London’s green space to truly benefit everyone.

As for the Garden Bridge Project, Sadiq Khan’s inquiry needs to get to work quickly so that this project can either be forced into existence (despite the hefty price tag), or scrapped for good so that no more public money is wasted, neither of which is fantastic for Londoners.

So in the immortal words of Patsy Stone: Cheers, thanks a lot.

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What if…London was a National Park City?

What if…London was a National Park City?

This was the question posed at the Royal Festival Hall two weeks back, when a diverse group of public sector workers, environmentalists, scientists, and a few beekeeping school children met to exchange ideas. Billing itself as a community meeting, the night was a chance for campaigners to promote their causes, champion some blue-sky thinking and ultimately move the audience to action. While the campaign itself is still in its early stages (it launched in 2014), judging by the range of speakers on offer, it’s starting to gather pace. In fact, as his GP Tom Coffey (Tooting’s proudest resident) was there to inform us, Sadiq Khan has publicly backed the idea, and hopefully his current proposals for tackling air pollution will move things in the right direction, though whether they’ll be bold enough remains to be seen.

So what would declaring London a National Park City mean? Well, the main thrust of the argument is to make London a greener, healthier, and safer place to live and work, which in practice boils down to creating cleaner air, cleaner rivers, and helping to forge a stronger connection between people and nature.

In order to make their case, and inspire visions of what a National Park City could mean, each speaker was given 5/10 minutes to talk about their project or vision for a future, greener London, and in a night packed full of statistics, the following ones stuck out:

47% of London is green space

On average, London’s children spend less time outside than prison inmates

Close to 10,000 people in London die due to the effects of air pollution every year

1 in 7 children in London haven’t visited natural green space in the past year

Around 55m tonnes of sewage flows into the Thames every year

London’s trees remove 2,241 tonnes of pollution, a 1/6 of the pollution made by cars

2.2 million pieces of litter are dropped on UK streets every day

¼ of the countries carbon emissions come from homes

While most of these stats make for pretty grim reading (the litter one particularly irks me) there is room for hope too, especially as London already has so much green space to work with (though the project hopes to increase this to 50%). When it comes to the city’s sewage problem, the Thames Tideway Tunnel, which is due to be completed in 2023, has been designed to support the city’s now antiquated sewerage system (which was designed to cope with a maximum of 4 million people) and should stop the almost daily overflow of sewage into the Thames for at least the next 100 years. If 2023 seems like a long way off though, the Thames Baths project should be an exciting prospect (it certainly is for me). The project aims to bring open-air swimming back to the River Thames, but don’t worry, until the sewage problem is sorted they’ll be filtering the Thames water to make it perfectly safe to swim in (and heating it in the winter too), and hopefully all within the next few years…here’s hoping.

Beyond questions about pollution though, many of the speakers were keen to highlight the consequences of being disconnected from nature, and the affect this can have on our mental health. The dramatic increase in childhood mental health issues has been trickling into the national consciousness recently, and Beth Collier, founder of Wild in the City! promoted the idea of time spent in nature when young, as an investment in future mental health.

When it came to the question of exactly how to reconnect London’s children with nature though, the speakers often had quite limited views, particularly regarding technology. Eyes were rolled at computer games and Pokemon on more than one occasion, and this inability to engage with young people via a medium that is a huge part of their lives seemed somewhat lacking in imagination for an event that was keen to be so forward facing. Especially as the recent Pokemon Go craze brought kids (and a lot of adults) out onto the streets and got them to explore areas of their neighbourhoods that they hadn’t stepped foot in before – including green spaces. The fact that kids can apparently name more Pokemon than actual animal species may sound depressing, but surely this new tech could be used to help get kids outside in the first place? Either way, technology certainly isn’t going anywhere, so engagement with it has to be the way forward if a scheme like this wants to succeed.

The way in which we perceive London as a city offered more thought-provoking insights though. Beth Collier stated the importance of making sure cities are liveable as opposed to places we just survive in, while Fiona Reynolds (former director of the National Trust) brought up the sadly rather old-fashioned idea of beauty. Her argument was that we have to fight against the idea of seeing London (and cities in general) purely as wealth creators, where beauty is only considered if its financially viable. Interestingly, given this train of thought, the controversial Garden Bridge project – which has brought up many questions regarding beauty, the line between private and public space, and a hell of a lot of raised eyebrows about funding – wasn’t mentioned by any of the speakers at all, though I am sure many of them had strong feelings about it! John Muir, the Scot responsible for setting up the first National Parks in America was brought up though, along with his apt quote ‘we need beauty as well as bread’.

All in all there were certainly many more questions than there were answers at this event, but every cause has to start somewhere, and change, especially on the scale proposed here, doesn’t happen over night. The thought of being able to swim in the Thames one day though, coupled with a desire not to drop down dead while walking down Oxford Street on a smoggy day, makes me think that a scheme like this, which encourages London and Londoners towards a greener future, can only be a good thing.

You can learn more and read the full proposal for making London a National Park City here.