Buildings That Never Happened: the Garden Bridge, London

How did a picture-perfect garden bridge project go so wrong?

Article By: Francesca Burke
Last Update: November 2018

The Original Garden Bridge Plan…

In August 2017 the Garden Bridge plan, in which a bridge filled with greenery would cross the River Thames between Temple Station and South Bank, was abandoned. The project has been mired in controversy and confusion for several years, despite initial support. So what went wrong?

Conceived by actress Joanna Lumley and designed by Thomas Heatherwick, who was involved in London Olympics and Routemaster, the Garden Bridge was, in theory, an excellent idea. It would have added another footbridge to a busy part of London, providing luscious green space and allowing pedestrians to enjoy relative peace and quiet in the heart of London. On paper, the Garden Bridge ticked every conceivable box: it was environmentally friendly, free for public use, unique and aesthetically pleasing. It was even originally intended as a memorial to Princess Diana.

Problems with the Plan

The main issue was the amount of public money that would have gone into a privately owned project that, upon closer investigation, wasn’t particularly in the public interest. The bridge would have closed between midnight and 6am, and closed for private functions. The public wasn’t consulted at any point, and ignoring local opinion rarely enamours people to a project they’re expected to pay for…

Furthermore, it would have been impractical to install trees and shrubs on a windswept bridge on the River Thames, and the bridge would have obscured protected views of London from Blackfriar’s Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and the South Bank. Additionally, the footbridge wouldn’t be directly accessible; its only access being via stairs or lifts. A building at one end would have replaced an existing public green space. Furthermore around 28 mature trees would have been felled during construction. There were even plans to ban activities such as playing a musical instrument (thus effectively banning buskers), flying a kite, holding gatherings.

Garden Bridge project

Shelving the Garden Bridge Project

The original cost of the project was estimated at around £60 million, but the proposed cost increased gradually to £185 million. While Mayor of London, Boris Johnson pledged £60 million of public money to the project, with the rest of the funding to come from private donations.

By 2016, however, despite donations of around £69 million from private donors, there was a £70 million shortfall. When Sadiq Khan became Mayor of London in 2016, he commissioned a report on the project. MP Margaret Hodge conducted the report and recommended shelving the project until private donations were secured. In addition, Hodge stated that the overall business plan was ‘incredibly weak’. With public support plummeting, Saddiq Khan officially abandoned the project a few months after Hodge’s report. It has since been revealed that designer Thomas Heatherwick may have had an inappropriate role in the Garden Bridge Trust and may even have suggested trustees that sign a construction contract and begin work early.

Ultimately the Garden Bridge was an unnecessary project in a time of austerity, an example of how good ideas need to be carefully executed if they’re to be as successful in practice as they are on paper…

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