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Sir Richard Rogers: The Garden Bridge can help this city retain its global status

, Evening Standard

World-renowned architect Sir Richard Rogers writes in today's Evening Standard:

The River Thames should be London’s greatest asset but for centuries it was a barrier rather than a connection. London turned its back on the dirty old industrial river, and it is only over the past 30 years that the city has rediscovered it.

Architects and planners have worked together in recent years to reinvent the South Bank, creating a beautiful sequence of buildings and public spaces, from the London Eye, to Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge, and on to Shad Thames — a string of pearls on the River. The transformation of the South Bank has allowed Londoners and visitors alike to discover the joy of the leisurely promenade, what the Italians call la passeggiata.

Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge would be a crowning glory for the rediscovery and reinvention of London’s river. The Garden Bridge, crossing the Thames between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges, would be a tourist attraction in its own right as well as a new landmark for Londoners to enjoy, an oasis of calm and greenery in the heart of the city, and a significant piece of transport infrastructure.

The Garden Bridge is an entirely new concept — infrastructure as a park as well as piece of city — and new concepts always generate controversy. It will be beautiful, fully accessible, free to use and open to all. It will be a world first. When I was designing the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the press were almost universally negative; as a joke, my colleagues showed me a petition condemning alien steel structures in the centre of the French capital but it was a petition against the Eiffel Tower from 100 years previously. The shock of the new is always a challenge.

Rather than recoiling from it, we should embrace the novelty and excitement of a new addition such as the Garden Bridge. It will be a beautiful object, its simple and elegant structure seeming to grow out of the river, and its meandering paths surrounded more than 270 trees and 100,000 plants and shrubs, all designed by Dan Pearson, one of the world’s greatest garden designers. As you walk across the bridge, the design of the different garden spaces will change, reflecting the character and rich heritage of the city and the riverbanks. The changing seasons and planting will add further texture and variety; no two visits to the bridge will be the same.

The green spaces of the bridge will provide moments of calm in the centre of a great world city — a place for friends, strangers and lovers to meet, or a place to be alone, looking out over the river, enjoy new views and the urban panorama of one of the world’s greatest cities. The bridge will be open to all without charge, except for up to a dozen days a year when it will be closed for some of the day for private events — to help it meet its running costs at a time when public-sector budgets for parks maintenance have been stripped to the bone. Public art galleries do the same thing; if we can’t or won’t fund public projects more generously, they need to generate commercial revenue.

The bridge will form a green link between South Bank and Temple but would also be a connector for London — enabling car-free walking between the cultural centres of South Bank and Covent Garden, and allowing workers to walk from Waterloo to jobs in Holborn and the City of London. We need to walk more and drive less, for our own health and the health of the planet, so better walking routes are essential.

I worked on a similar scheme in the early Eighties, when I was asked to help developers with a scheme for the space now occupied by the Coin Street development; my plans were very different from what has been built on the South Bank, and from the design of the Garden Bridge, but the case for better connections over the river between London’s transport hubs, cultural and business centres remains strong. As London grows, and walking and cycling become more common means of travel, we need to build space for pedestrians as well as cars, buses and cycles. The cycle superhighways have transformed the experience of cyclists in London. It is time we did the same for pedestrians, creating safe, clean walking routes over the river, rather than cramming them alongside congested and polluted roadways. People in their thousands cross over Hungerford Bridge at Charing Cross at the Millennium Bridge between Tate Modern and St Paul’s. The Garden Bridge, roughly halfway between them, is the next piece on London’s new pedestrian infrastructure jigsaw.

The building of the bridge will be an event in itself, an engineering feat generating excitement and interest; components will be shipped from Italy, then assembled in Tilbury, before being brought upstream on barges, and lifted into place. The Garden Bridge has become a victim of politics, changes of governments and of mayors. Its future is now hanging in the balance. But public money has already been invested in the project by Transport for London and the Department for Transport, and it has a substantial amount of private backing. Public private partnerships are vital to the future of city landscapes and community projects.

London’s position as a leading global city is facing huge challenges, from Brexit and from a world that seems to be turning more inward at every election. The future of the Garden Bridge is uncertain, as its trustees try to raise private funds required and find a guarantor to underwrite yearly maintenance costs. At times like these, faced by several tragedies in the capital, Mayor Sadiq Khan has observed that London needs to remain open, to affirm its status as a dynamic, innovative and lively city that can embrace opportunity, and can continue to reinvent itself and to lead the world.

If ever there was a time when London needed commitment to infrastructure projects big and small, privately and publicly funded — from Crossrail 2 to the Garden Bridge — it is now. We should embrace the design and imagination of the Garden Bridge.