Standing on Waterloo Bridge looking eastwards the sunset falls behind me, but in the direction I gaze an array of building materials, indexing the history of London’s construction past, reflect the hues back. As the sky beyond drifts towards darkness the stone of St. Pauls, glass of the Gherkin, National’s concrete and the rest of the patchwork capture the reflected warmth and sit proud on the skyline.
Below, the vast expanse of water, stretched wider by the bend in the Thames, flickers and opens up possibilities and imagination. Trains cut horizontally, tiny silhouettes of day-trippers waiting on Blackfriars to be taken from the city. Docklands belies its scale, sitting on the horizon as tiny rectangles puncturing the space between the river banks.
I am in paradise.
Walking south across the bridge the skyline seems to move. Towers pass in front of and behind one another as boats drift below. St Pauls is always in view but the setting around it plays, montaging architecture old and new. This is the best way to experience the river and its setting, as a flâneur reading the change with each step. Not as a static photo opportunity, as a construct of single-view positions for selfies, but as a changing experiential landscape.
Landing on the South Bank I turn a dogleg in the stone stairs, dropping a “hello” to the Big Issue seller, descending to the heart of culture; the BFI to my left, the NT to my right. Other acronyms litter the area, from KCL to QEH, but I head east towards ITV past IBM.
Denys Lasdun designed both the National Theatre and IBM headquarters, though one is public and the other private so they present themselves quite differently to me at path level. The layers of the National offer glimpses into activity, it is permeable and inviting, whilst its neighbour is blocked off with moat and fence; corporate and lacking play or warmth. The pathway narrows, constricting the crowds around me into half the width.
The South Bank of the Thames is a delicate mix of public and private, and this short stretch where the IBM pushes up against me forcefully says “private”. My peripheral vision opens up to the left, cranes appear to peek above trees across the river, a fine row of north bank architecture leading up to St Pauls always in view even when I am not directly looking. To my right the hulk of IBM attacks, telling me to look away.
But there is respite. Suddenly the concrete to my right drops off and I see green. The footpath widens and I see grass, a grid of mature trees, hedges and shrubs. This isn’t the most bucolic park in London, but it’s welcome and restores some balance to my peripheral vision, the openness of the Thames to one side reflected by this flat grass on the other. It’s also totally public, free for all to access at any time of the day to sit on, play on or just glance at as passing.
It was recently awarded an Asset of Community Value as a step to try to protect it from development. This is the site of the south landing of the planned Garden Bridge and the grass, plants, openness and thirty trees will be replaced by commercial units, a lift and platform above with queuing for 2,500 and as a corporate entertainment opportunity.
In the planning application this public space is twice referred to as “under-utilised”. As I stand here I wonder what they mean. I see somebody sitting on it, I see people looking at the trees, I see its utility as a balance to the concrete just passed and I understand its value as public space. Perhaps they mean it’s not making enough money, or that it hasn’t been built on yet. Maybe they meant that the space itself is not manicured and designed, like Jubilee Gardens further up. Yes, it’s unremarkable, but not all greenspace needs to be programmed and landscaped, and there’s huge benefit to spaces in London which just exist as free domain to be used as we wish, when we wish.
The Garden Bridge isn’t such a space. A private space with no legal public right of way, the Garden Bridge Trust behind it state there are no current plans for ticketing or increasing the current 12 days a year it will be closed to public, but admit this may need to be considered after opening. And despite using over £60m of public funds, along with an annual public underwriting of the £3.5m annual maintenance, it offers no conceivable benefit to Londoners – as a park the £175m could be far better spent on community spaces, existing parks or preventing the funding cuts at Kew further upstream. They state it will improve ‘walkability’ and offer a critical commuting route, even claiming it will save between 0.37 and 0.7 lives a year, though queuing and possible ticketing make me suspicious about usefulness for commuters, and I have just managed perfectly well to walk across the river on a very short stroll so I am not sure how it will make it an easier area to walk.
It’s that proximity to Waterloo Bridge which not only renders it pointless as an amenity to Londoners, it actually takes away from the city. The eastwards vantage I just enjoyed will be lost, the openness of the river at as it bends upstream will be compromised. St. Pauls only visible from a single photo-opp in the centre, the relationship of it to the city old and new gone. Similarly, the views from where I am standing now on the South Bank will also be damaged; upstream towards the cathedral and row of historic riverfront buildings, downstream to Somerset House. Obstructed.
This footpath will be narrowed just as it is in front of IBM, and as crowded as it is in front of County Hall where queues, gift shops, food outlets and crowds are obstacles to any casual riverside wander. Trees, grass and public space will be lost for a ‘garden’ which is total greenwash and will never repay its carbon footprint.
And for what? A Bridge which wasn’t asked for, was never argued as offering useful infrastructure until the Trust’s funding model changed from private to public/private. In a time of austerity, when parks budgets are being cut, when London is being further removed from being a city for Londoners, when east London is crying out for pedestrian and cycle river crossings, this is what the Mayor is doing? A bridge which was a dream of his former family friend who had known him since he was four, Joanna Lumley, and was awarded to Thomas Heatherwick in a secret procurement process now under investigation.
The route I have just walked is one of the most sublime pedestrian routes in London, with the most expansive and inspiring views of the city. By the river, over the river, with the river. This is London for Londoners, a timeless experience which should be preserved and protected.
© Will Jennings, August 2015
Will Jennings is a visual artist.