New River Thames Crossings and the Garden Bridge

Friday 14 March 2014

Building bridges in London gets more complex the further east one goes because of the increasing width of the Thames and the need to go higher for large ships to pass beneath them.

But the capital is making great strides to increase the number of crossings to better connect a growing population and improve ageing assets in the east. In the centre, meanwhile, the £120 million Heatherwick Studio-designed Garden Bridge will be a pedestrian-only sculptural addition to London’s infrastructure with ‘a sense of place’, where tourists and Londoners can linger or move across at their own speed.

Those were some of the key findings at a stimulating breakfast talk at NLA last week at which representatives of Transport for London, Heatherwick Studio and Arup debated the impact that future crossings will make to London.

Richard de Cani, Director of Transport Strategy and Policy, Planning at TfL said that it was acknowledged as a ‘very significant problem’ that there are far fewer crossings east of Tower Bridge than to the west, but that delivering new ones in London is challenging. People underestimate the size of the river at Putney compared to at Silvertown or Greenwich, he said, where the trade-off is between longer, higher structures that are at a less ‘human scale’ but which are necessary to serve London’s economy. At Gallions Reach, for example, the river is 650m wide, and headroom clearance east of Tower Bridge is 50m. ‘We’re talking about a very different river, with very different characteristics’.

Transport modeling tools have shown that in west London there are about four million total trips made on an average day across roads, rail, walking and cycling, of which around nine per cent cross the river. But this compares with east London, where three million trips are made but only one per cent cross the river, illustrating the barrier to movement a lack of crossings represents. Old assets such as the Blackwall Tunnel are causing problems with over-height vehicles and the stress they impose on businesses seeking to plan with certainty, with over 1000 closures a year. And while there has been significant investment in rail in the east, with the DLR, Jubilee Line, CTRL and soon Crossrail, there has not been the equivalent investment in roads.

Meanwhile, the cable car, said de Cani, was developed because it was impossible to create a pedestrian bridge on its site, and not as a ‘novelty tourist attraction’ but to provide connectivity for two growth areas. ‘We planned it knowing it would be relatively quiet in the early years’. De Cani also added that the Silvertown road tunnel was scheduled to open by 2023 and will be funded and managed by user charges.

One high profile bridge that is proceeding relatively quickly is the Garden Bridge designed by Heatherwick Studio, a planning application for which is being submitted in May this year, and the backers of which are gathering donations to help reach its £120m price tag. Stuart Wood, Project Leader on Garden Bridge and Head of Innovation at Heatherwick Studio said the bridge has a ‘perfect slot’ which is a ‘gap in the market’ in amongst Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridges from near Temple Station to the South Bank, surrounded by ‘an amazing array’ of institutions and tourist attractions. ‘The project for us is about asking ‘where does infrastructure and a sense of place collide’, said Wood. It is also about tapping into what experience a bridge could offer for a pedestrian that only a pedestrian bridge could offer, with less of the sense of movement that happens at the Millennium Bridge. ‘It’s expressing the opportunity of doing something more meandering’, said Wood, with the bridge splaying to 30m at its widest point and back down to 8-9m and featuring five principal horticultural stages including a ‘cultivated glade’, rest places and a palette of materials specific to the world of gardens. Finally, Tristram Carfrae, Group Board Director at Arup said that the bridge is ‘primarily a garden’ but will inevitably be a destination with all parts of the scheme structural and deliberately referring to ships with materials including copper and nickel welded to black steel ‘trussery’ in the middle of the bridge. Everything has been designed to be transportable, with components trucked into the city and work conducted over the water reduced down to a minimum. But the most difficult challenge is how people will use the bridge’ said Carfrae, with no precedent or benchmark available. ‘This is going to have to be a bit ‘let’s see how this happens’’ he said. Carfrae added that it is possible people may get stuck on the bridge in its early, popular days, but traffic flows will settle down. The projected high level of pedestrian flows is one of the reasons why a decision was made to make it a pedestrian-only bridge, with TfL concentrating on improving facilities for cyclists on other bridges such as Blackfriars or Waterloo instead.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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New River Thames Crossings and the Garden Bridge


Join us at NLA for a free breakfast talk to hear an update on plans to provide additional River Thames crossings in the capital.