Will Jennings, the organiser of the contest seeking rival ideas to Heatherwick Studios’ contentious Garden Bridge, on why people are ‘tired of being marketed to, rather than talked to’

Two quotes from the recent article, The battle of Norton Folgate: a victory for social media LINK, resonate for me.

One, from Joe Morris of Duggan Morris, goes: ‘There is a rapaciousness which isn’t halting – a definite shift in attitude. There are people out there who are repeatedly sending out a negative message and there are things like Twitter to stir up the frenzy.’

The second was from Paul Williams of Stanton Williams: ‘What the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust showed at its exhibition [and subsequently online] was a misrepresentation; a distortion of our scheme that was tantamount to propaganda.’

People increasingly feel as if changes to the environment around them happen despite them and without considering them. When projects increasingly appear to pass through the planning process with little apparent regard for citizens’ comments and ignoring residents or action groups who had opposed them, is it any wonder people look to new forms of protest, solidarity and spreading their concerns?

And what of the many people that cannot easily negotiate the labyrinthine online planning portal? Or don’t know it exists? It can be a complicated process not only to find information, but then to register and communicate an opinion. Not everybody has the abilities or skills to engage on this level. The democratic process should be in place to work for all, not just those that understand the systems and how to play them.

Many large-scale projects make little effort at putting out the full information of their proposal. I set up A Folly For London largely because of the sheer numbers of people who didn’t know any details of the planned Garden Bridge beyond its being a crossing somewhere in central London, trees sitting on it and some sort of connection to Joanna Lumley. And this was after The Garden Bridge Trust had been through the planning process and proudly claimed they had fulfilled all public consultation required of them.

If something that big, with such an effect upon citizens financially and aesthetically, can pass through planning without people even knowing they have the right to oppose it, let alone understand the real information both for it and against it with which to make an informed opinion, then it is clear that the current system has flaws.

Morris completely misses the point about new forms of communication with the implication that Twitter was to blame for a ‘frenzy’. Firstly, what to him was a frenzy was to others mass public engagement in architecture and local environment. Secondly, Twitter and other social media is inert; it does not cause anything in itself, but if only one side of any discussion are using it to disseminate their views and raise awareness then of course it’s going to seem to him like a ‘frenzy’.

As for Stanton’s comments, it could be perceived as extremely disingenuous that a stakeholder in such a development project is accusing community groups of ‘propaganda’. People are tired of being duped by developers who promise more than is ever delivered for the local community and use heavy marketing, PR with spectacular renders to present their one-sided case. Whether it is the wind turbines on top of the Strata in Elephant and Castle, which were key to the building achieving planning but now do not turn, or the Sky Garden in the Walkie Talkie, which ended up entirely different to the romantic bucolic images used to sell the scheme to the local authority, and through that to the public, people are tired of being marketed to, rather than talked to.

It is something I am seeing hugely from the Garden Bridge Trust as they sell Londoners the dream of a ‘floating’ park over the Thames. In the planning documents there are numerous renders showing the scheme at different times of year and from different locations. They had to provide them as part of their planning application. Some show the Bridge in extremely bad light, especially the views from the South Bank at pedestrian eye level, which clearly show the impact upon the vantage towards the North Bank and St Paul’s. But the only renders issued to the media and widespread online are totally unreal and not representative in the slightest of how a member of the public would experience the project. There is the drone view, which, I suggest, is strategically positioned to provide as little information as possible in really understanding the true position of the bridge, whether that be the South Bank location, proximity to Waterloo Bridge or sense of scale. Then there are various ‘on-bridge’ images, all of which show empty open spaces with no more than seven people present. This on a bridge with capacity for 2,500 and queuing for the same again. These are misleading and inaccurate renders.

People are used to this misinformation and spin in developer-led schemes, but to have it for a project requiring an initial £60 million of public finance, along with such repercussions for loved views and loss of public space in London, is shameful.

A few weeks ago the Garden Bridge Trust commissioned a poll of views of their project. It was brief and asked extremely vague and somewhat meaningless questions. Before the question ‘To what extent do you support or oppose this proposal for a Garden Bridge?’ the 2,000 telephone interviewees were given a short statement to describe the bridge: ‘The Garden Bridge is a proposed pedestrian footbridge over the River Thames, from the top of Temple underground station on the North Bank to the South Bank, which will include gardens and trees.’

There is no attempt here to objectively describe the bridge. As has been well documented, there are many issues that any respondent may consider useful to know – public expense, private ownership, closure for corporate entertainment, loss of existing views and more – which are surely critical before giving a fully informed response to the question.

But, instead, we see headlines saying that ’80 per cent of Londoners support the Garden Bridge’ – spin and marketing to sell us a project we are already funding. Why treat citizens with such disrespect? Is the Garden Bridge Trust’s confidence in its own project so low that it fears telling people the positives and negatives?

They don’t need to ‘sell’ the idea to us any more, seeing as it has passed through the democratic process of planning and they have proudly fulfilled their public consultation requirements. So, it’s worth looking at the data of their own recent poll, as there is one question asked which their PR exercise doesn’t mention. ‘Before now, had you ever heard of the Garden Bridge?’. 37 per cent of replies were ‘Never heard of’, 15 per cent ‘Heard of but know nothing about’ and a further 38 per cent replying ‘Heard of and know a little about’. If 52 per cent of people know next to nothing about it then the ‘widespread public consultation’ by the Garden Bridge Trust and the planning process has clearly failed.

Most people do not go trawling local authority websites to discover new planning applications. Most do not even notice signs pinned to lampposts near proposed sites. We also cannot rely on a neutral and informative local press – the Evening Standard should be the go-to place for Londoners to really understand the issues with the city and, for instance, should be impartially reporting on positives and negatives of the Garden Bridge. But, instead it is little more than a PR machine for the political allegiances and opinions of its owner. So, in this connected world, media like Twitter, blogs and local campaign groups offer valuable connections and communications to create an engaged audience who want to understand what is happening in the places they live.

Possibly the very last thing certain organisations want – whether that be authorities or developers – is an engaged audience. People asking questions, entering into a dialogue and trying to understand issues deeper than the swish render and meaningless statements only slow down the process and stop their plans becoming reality. And so we see the games and devices of appearing to engage their audience, with statements of fulfilling all required public consultation without considering if it is genuinely sufficient or working, of deceptive polls and misleading press releases.

No wonder people have had enough. No wonder that people are using the new networks afforded by technology to create their own solidarity and dissemination of information. This is not ‘propaganda’; it is democracy in action, and it is fundamental in sustaining an engaged democracy who are part of the conversation relating to how their environment is affected and not just annoyances in the way of a grand vision.


© Will Jennings, August 2015

(This article was originally published in Architects’ Journal. LINK)

Will Jennings is a visual artist. WEBSITE