The Thames Garden Bridge – Elevated Eden or Floral Folly?

The Garden Bridge, London.  Thomas Heatherwick, 2013

Great cities have one thing in common – ambition.  Some display this tastefully, others gaudily, but all want to be bigger, higher, newer and more culturally vibrant than the other. London, already a world-class city, sometimes finds its style cramped by its historic past.  New buildings must not obstruct views towards St Paul’s cathedral and the complex road and underground systems are ill-equipped to service a burgeoning population.  Nevertheless there are exciting plans afoot throughout the metropolis – redevelopment of Battersea Power Station, the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and Crossrail, a 73-mile railway that will link towns west of the city directly with the east.  The buzz around the capital is palpable. From a horticultural point of view, a new project that really catches my eye is The Garden Bridge, a proposed pedestrian crossing which will span the River Thames from Temple to the South Bank.  The bridge will provide the public with the opportunity to enjoy some of the finest river views in London from a elevated landscape of trees, grasses and perennials.  It’s the kind of idea that really gets my juices flowing.

The Garden Bridge, Thomas Heatherwick

The designer is Thomas Heatherwick, who has been collaborating on the concept with actor and campaigner Joanna Lumley.  Heatherwick has been riding high since designing the UK Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 (below), to my mind one of the most sensational British-designed buildings of recent years.  Despite working to a budget half the size of most other western countries, Heatherwick managed to win the event’s top prize, the gold medal for pavilion design.  More recent projects include the stunning Olympic cauldron for the London 2012 Games and the controversial new Routemaster bus which, incidentally, will be plying my route into the city very soon.

British Pavillion, Shanghai World Expo 2010

Image: Iwan Baan

The Garden Bridge’s proposed structure is simple and elegant, varying in width as it crosses the river. This will allow for deeper planting in some areas and better views in others.  Construction materials will be warm and natural in colour. At this stage, details about the exact planting scheme are sparse, but the renderings show a style which appears to be very much influenced by another long, elevated landscape – New York’s High Line.  Structure and seasonality will be important to keep the landscape looking strong and varied throughout the year. Having grasped our imagination, now comes the hard part.  Heatherwick Studio, along with partners Arup and Dan Pearson Studio need to raise the funding for their visionary project. A public consultation led by The Garden Bridge Trust and supported by Transport for London is running until December 20th 2013, encouraging the public to comment on the scheme.  What happens thereafter is less clear.

I for one will be giving the project a big thumbs up.  Why?  London is a city that’s always made green spaces part of its landscape, and which has horticulture running though its veins.  The Garden Bridge feels like a fitting continuation of this legacy – a green corridor linking north with south.  On the flip side, London is not short of bridges spanning the Thames, so one could question the cost in relation to the benefit.  This may be a just call, but cities of London’s stature need to draw in tourists and keep tongues wagging to maintain their pre-eminence.  So, I say ‘go for it!’.  It’s a sign that the city still has ambition beyond pure commerciality; an opportunity to create an environment for Londoners that’s vibrant, attractive and connected to nature.  The Garden Bridge heralds a new kind of progress that goes forth hand-in-hand with the environment.

The Garden Bridge, London.  Thomas Heatherwick, 2013

The image above is an artist’s impression, showing how the Garden Bridge might appear once the planting has fully matured, looking east from Waterloo Bridge. All photographs:  Thomas Heatherwick / Arup