Will London’s Garden Bridge rival New York’s High Line, or is it just a tacky tourist trap?

One can see the appeal.
One can see the appeal.
Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
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London got the green light it needed from a local borough council last week to construct the Garden Bridge—a walkway supporting 2 million pounds of dirt, 270 trees, and an array of plants—over the Thames River. The plan will now go to the city’s mayor for the final stamp of approval to begin construction late next year.

It’s being pitched as London’s version of New York’s High Line, the overhead park built on an obsolete elevated train track that cities around the world including Seoul and Mexico City have tried to emulate. Councillor Robert Davis, the deputy leader of the Westminster City Council, said as he voted for the park that it is “something that is iconic and absolutely unique, and will be recognized right across the world.” And London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, who will make the final decision, said the Garden Bridge would help make the city “more walkable and liveable,” reported the Telegraph.

New York’s High Line in 2012.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

But as appealing as the idea might sound, it has set off a firestorm of criticism, with some questioning the use of public funds to cover part of the £175 million ($272.8 million) price tag, when London could perhaps better use that money for affordable housing or transport infrastructure. (The mayor’s office has pledged £30 million through Transport for London with another £30 million to come from the Treasury, with private donors funding the rest of the project.)

And, they argue, the bridge would link two neighborhoods, Temple on the north side of the river and the South Bank, that are hardly in need of revitalization. “Is this really what London needs?” the Financial Times asked. “Tourist tat posing as infrastructure in order to siphon off public money?”

The leafy walkway, which backers hope will open in 2018, was originally the “dreamy idea” of the British actress Joanna Lumley in 1998, as a memorial to Princess Diana. Her idea is now in the hands of designer Thomas Heatherwick, who designed the 2012 Olympic cauldron and redesigned London’s double-decker buses.

The bridge would be open to the public from 6am to midnight, except for private events such as fundraisers, according to the Garden Bridge website. And as a public garden, the designers hope to make it a place where people can “meet and spend time, with education and volunteering opportunities so people can get their hands dirty, helping with the upkeep of this new community garden.” Critics have charged, however, that restrictions on bicycling, nighttime visits, and on more than eight people gathering at once, as well as the possibility of an entry fee, will make it useless to most Londoners.

Cyclists will be asked to push their bikes while on the Garden Bridge in order to make the walkway more pedestrian friendly.
Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studios
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Heatherwick plans to use special plants that can flourish in a garden in the middle of the river.
Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studios

A group that opposes the project, Waterloo Community Development Group, has warned of even more dire consequences. Its director, Michael Ball, suggested that overcrowding on the bridge will cause another ”Hillsborough disaster” (the tragedy in 1989 when 96 football fans were crushed to death against fences in a stadium filled to overcapacity). “I can see people jumping into the river to avoid being crushed,” Ball told the Guardian.

Others have rejected the comparison with New York’s High Line, which was a reuse of a piece of abandoned and blighted infrastructure, rather than a brand-new construction. In any case, even as his plans face opposition in London, in New York Heatherwick has another plan gestating (paywall) that could challenge the High Line’s place at the pinnacle of urban park innovation: a $170-million floating park in the Hudson River—Pier 55—off a ruined pier near Manhattan’s hip Meatpacking District, boasting undulating glades, wooded nooks, and an amphitheater.

04_View of Pier 55 from the esplanade looking west
A view of Pier 55 looking west.
Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studios