Despite some to-be-expected grumblings, the oohing and ahhing over London’s Garden Bridge — the River Thames-spanning park concept conceived by actress/national treasure Joanna Lumley and designed by big-deal Brit architect Thomas Heatherwick — was deafening when the £175 million (just shy of $275 million) project was first unveiled in 2013. The design renderings were seductive, the promise of wildlife-attracting green space in the heart of London was agreeable and there was a lot to like, theoretically, about a “floating paradise garden” that, in the words of Lumley herself, will “bring to Londoners and visitors alike peace and beauty and magic.”

What’s not to like?

According to a growing number of detractors, quite a lot.

Now that Garden Bridge has quickly evolved from a starry-eyed bit of loveliness that many thought would never gain traction into a serious — and seriously expensive — infrastructure project complete with approval from Lambeth Council and Westminster Council, much of that early enthusiasm has been muffled by censure. Critics have weighed in with their doubts and disapproval on the"ill-informed," “preposterous” and “crazy stupid” vision. Last week’s greenlighting by Westminster Council, the second of three crucial steps in the planning process with the next being a final blessing by the office of London Mayor Boris Johnson, generated a fair amount of public outcry. A petition imploring Johnson, a vocal booster of the project from the get-go, to withdraw his support has also made the rounds.

The reason for the backlash lies within the details — details that hadn't yet emerged when the planning proposal was first presented for public consumption.

What London's Garden Bridge would look like

First off, there’s the issue of cost. One hundred seventy-five million pounds (plus an anticipated £3.5 million in annual maintenance costs) is a hefty chunk of change, a sum that many believe would be better put to use elsewhere (affordable housing, transportation, etc.) than on a vegetation-clad footbridge-cum-tourist magnet described by Lumley as a "tiara on the head of our fabulous city" that will “set hearts racing and calm troubled minds.” While Garden Bridge’s backers have performed serious fundraising magic (£120 million in charitable donations has been raised by the Garden Bridge Trust) a large chunk of remaining funding will come from taxpayer dollars.

Originally, the project had a dramatically smaller price tag (£60 million) and was to be supported entirely by private funders.

The price tag for Garden Bridge — already being dubbed the “most expensive footbridge in the world” — is astronomical in part to its copper cladding. Bridge consultant Simon Bourne explains to the BBC that the cladding has rendered Garden Bridge five to 10 times more costly to build than most footbridges. He adds: "One has to view this bridge to a certain extent not as a piece of infrastructure, but as a piece of art. It's not value for money and I don't think it's good design."

The engineering costs involved with making Garden Bridge —a crowded and overstyled chunk of heavy engineering garnished with urban parsley" per the Guardian's Rowan Moore — a reality are also greater than the average footbridge considering that the structure will support 270 trees, 2 million pounds of soil and a couple thousand totally blissed-out visitors.

And about those visitors. Exactly whom Garden Bridge is catering to has also emerged as a main sticking point for opponents who consider the project to be misguided — a stunning supermodel clad in a fresh pair of bad idea jeans. As lamented by Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright, Garden Bridge has morphed into more of a lushly planted tourist conveyor belt a la New York City's High Line than a functional pedestrian bridge connecting the South Bank to Temple Station — a scenic way for Londoners, whether they're high-tailing it or moseying, to get from point A to B.

Although the Garden Bridge Trust is insistent that there won't be one, there’s the chance that a timed entry ticketing system could be employed to handle huge crowds — groups of eight or more are not allowed without advance formal permission from the Garden Bridge Trust as to eliminate “protest risk” — and cyclists will be completely verboten from crossing Garden Bridge, a decision coming from Lumley herself.

Being a Lambeth resident and using the Tube, I walk a lot. I don’t walk in cycle lanes and that’s the reason why I — and I’m the only one you can blame for not having cycles on this bridge — I said that I believe that cyclists speeding over the bridge would stop it being a peaceful place to walk and a safe place maybe to take a wheelchair.

While dedicated bike lanes could be implemented into the design, it would take away from the overall amount of planted green space, which, as it stands, is 2,700 square meters (the total area of the structure is 6,000 square meters). Garden Bridge would also be closed from midnight to 6 a.m. and be shuttered once a month for private events. Also, there will be no picnicking apparently. Bummer.

Reads a Nov. 25 letter written by Bee Emmott, executive director of Garden Bridge Trust:

As with any public spaces, it is important that the bridge is comfortable and safe for everyone to use. Cyclists will push their bikes, so we create a safe pedestrian environment while keeping as much space as possible for the garden. We need to consider how many people will visit at peak times and how to best manage numbers for everyone’s enjoyment. So we have forecast pedestrian numbers and collaborated with other partners along the South Bank. As part of our planning application we have had to define the size of a group in situations where number management may be necessary.

There’s also the issue of siting. According to Thames Central Open Space (TCOS), the campaign group that launched the aforementioned online petition, there’s zero need for a pedestrian bridge, no matter how verdant, in the proposed location between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. In the tourist-packed 2-mile zone between Westminster Bridge and London Bridge, there are already nine bridges, seven of which are open to foot traffic including Norman Foster's (formerly terrifying) pedestrians-only Millennium Bridge. TCOS argues that Garden Bridge would better serve Londoners in a different locale where it could truly act as a crossing and not a privately operated park that just happens to take the shape of a bridge.

Damage to the ecosystem of the Thames, the removal of 30 existing mature trees on the South Bank and altered/obscured views of London landmarks including St. Paul’s Cathedral, are among TCOS’s other grievances with the project.

A walker's view of London's Garden Bridge

Roger Davis, deputy leader of Westminster Council, addresses the view issue: “This is something that is iconic and absolutely unique, and will be recognised right across the world. I understand the concerns about potential loss of views, but there is no doubting that this bridge will bring substantial and significant benefits to London."

If given the go-ahead by Mayor Johnson, construction on Garden Bridge would commence in 2015. Meanwhile, a design competition for another Thames-spanning pedestrian bridge (this one also bike-friendly and, presumably, minus all the greenery) was recently launched by the London Borough of Wandsworth. This bridge would connect the Nine Elms district, home to a flurry of redevelopment at Battersea Power Station, with Pimlico on the north bank.

It's a bit of a shame, really, about the controversy surrounding Garden Bridge, which, interestingly, was first envisioned by Lumley back in the late 1990s as a memorial to Princess Diana. In an ideal world, the proposal would be embraced without protest. But in an aging city faced with pressing housing and transportation woes, using public money to fund a tourist-luring floating park does seem irresponsible. Opponents of the project do have valid points, particularly with regards to accessibility. There appears to be a whole lot of wrong going on.

Any Londoners — or frequent visitors who have spent a good deal along the banks of the Thames — care to chime in with your thoughts?

Via [Quartz], [The Guardian], [BBC]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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