London’s Garden Bridge – an architectural oasis or a costly extravagance?


Labour’s Mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan has pledged to scrap plans for Garden Bridge, a tree-lined horticultural oasis sitting across the River Thames, linking Temple to the South Bank. He states that the project – supported by Joanna Lumley – does not represent value for money as it will cost £60million in public funding.  Labour argues that the plans, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, should be attracting more private investors, rather than being paid for by the public purse. Instead, Khan proposes the £30million budget so far allocated by Transport for London should go towards transforming the congested shopping hub of Oxford Street into a leafy pedestrianised boulevard.

This announcement of course has been criticised by current Tory Mayor Boris Johnson, who describes the move as ‘political posturing’ and an ‘unexpected U-turn’.

However, whilst Garden Bridge may be turning into a political football, the debate opens up other issues when it comes to public spending allocations towards architectural projects.

In today’s austere times, it becomes almost inevitable to compare very different services and projects side-by-side. For example, when frontline services are being cut, how can a horticultural, aesthetically pleasing bridge be justified?  When NHS Hospitals are downgrading services, how can CCG’s put on health awareness roadshows?  And the classic, how can TFL call a tube strike, when drivers are getting paid more than junior doctors?

The debate spans beyond the capital and is exercised globally.  For example, when ISIS were believed to be destroying landmark buildings in the ancient city of Palmyra, some argued that the international outcry was disproportionate, as the destruction of monuments paled in comparison to the Syrian civilian casualties.  As one journalist pointed out, it is as though people are only allowed to feel sadness at one thing at a time, and lamenting the loss of architecture somehow reduced our sympathy for the humanitarian tragedy.

However, by using such an imbalanced comparison means that architecture will always seem less important, less of a priority and more of an expense when set against such impossible benchmarks.

As a result, the benefits of architecture – such as an improved skyline, a greater interest for tourists or an increase in the area value, become almost defunct when weighed up on a cost basis.

While it could be argued that Garden Bridge is not great value for money, bringing the austerity debate into every argument will mean that many projects of architectural note may not make the grade.

Halima Khatun

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