|A High Line for London? What the Braithwaite viaduct in Shoreditch might|
look like. Photograph: Bishopsgate Goodsyard
"From trees on bridges to magical parks, London’s most damaging developments are using green garnish as a decoy to distract from what’s really going on
Spring has sprung and developers are getting green-fingered. Across London, their planning applications are sprouting leaves and bursting into bloom. They’re promising trees on bridges and jungles in the clouds, sky-gardens and life-giving linear parks, along with a whole network of green ribbons weaving through town.
Who could say no to this fecund vision for London? What mean-spirited planning committee would stand in the way of this pastoral dream? Very few can resist the lure of a good garden. That is precisely the problem.
Developers have got wise to the power of a few plants in easing their bloated schemes through the planning system. They’ve realised that a little green garnish can mask a multitude of sins. A clutch of 40-storey luxury apartment towers in a conservation area, you say? But check out that lovely lawn! A bridge-shaped tourist attraction for a stretch of the Thames that doesn’t need another crossing,to be built at vast expense to the taxpayer? But what nice shrubs it has! The word “garden” has never been misused as such a damaging decoy.
If ever evidence were needed that the promised planting of a CGI mirage might not be as good in reality, it can be found 150 metres up in the air at No 20 Fenchurch Street. The 37-storey Walkie-Talkie tower was given planning permission in an area never intended for tall buildings – way outside the City’s planned “cluster” – on the sole basis that it would come with a majestic “sky garden”.
The planning application featured a storyboard of seductive images, from pensioners mingling among the cherry blossom to visitors staring out in awe at the neighbouring towers, all from the vantage point of this fairytale bower in the sky. Policies could be breached and all would be forgiven for the joy this Babylonian utopia would bring.
The reality, as documented in these pages, is more like a couple of rockeries and a few trees in pots. It has all the sylvan charm of an office lobby – a public space for which you must book in advance and go through airport-style security to savour.
It is an underwhelming precedent that makes the proposed garden bridge seem all the more unlikely to deliver the promised dream of a floating forest across the Thames. Joanna Lumley’s plan, that people will be able to “walk through woodlands over one of the greatest rivers in the world,” is more likely to end up seeing crowds shuffling across a windswept deck, picking their way between a few shrubs that are clinging on for dear life.
A closer look at the planning application reveals what the feted bridge will actually look like from the south bank. Buried in the Environmental Statement, Volume 8, Appendix 15, page 27, lurks a verified view of the reality of this great chunk of engineering. It will be a copper-clad aircraft carrier, topped with a meagre green sprinkle – what my colleague Rowan Moore so elegantly described as “urban parsley”. A judicial review has been launched against the planning permission.
It’s easy to giggle at the folly of the garden bridge, but this wilting parsley has become a scourge. Across London, this green dressing is being used to soften the blow of steroidal overdevelopment, with slivers of park threaded between bulging apartment blocks. On the Greenwich Peninsula, where the developer Knight Dragon has almost halved its affordable housing commitment, the flats are currently being marketed with “views of Central Park”. They must be jolly high.
Some of the apartment blocks already built there have tried the “vertical garden” trick too, with forlorn patches of green wall hanging off the facade like sticking plasters trying to hide the bin store. As one Twitter wit put it when I posted a photo of the wretched thing: “Certainly sir, a two-bed maisonette. And would you like salad with that?”
The former Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle is being recast as “Elephant Park”, because there will be some greenery in the middle of the development – to be planted long after Lend Lease’s elephant of regeneration has charged through and trampled the council flats to dust. Further west, among the thicket of towers currently sprouting between Vauxhall and Nine Elms, will one day weave a kilometre-long linear park, or “a sustainable green backbone” as the developer Ballymore has it.
“This extraordinary green channel will be entirely open to the public and a focal point for shopping, sports, leisure and recreation, outdoor events and all forms of community life,” they coo. “Its edges will be lined with homes, shops, cafes, leisure venues and other attractions to draw people in and activate the space.”
But with most of the development being marketed to overseas investors, who are unlikely to ever set foot here, it’s hard to imagine what kind of community life will occur on the great green carpet. Still, at least it will provide a “visual amenity” for those looking down from their £9m penthouses, if they ever bother to collect the keys.
The other side of town, at Bishopsgate Goodsyard in Shoreditch, the same developer is using a similar strategy of Potemkin planting to distract attention away from what they’re really doing on the other side of the hedge. London will be gifted with a spectacular new High Line, they trumpet, with a pocket park perched atop the crumbling remains of the old Victorian railway arches. Having suffered decades of neglectful vandalism, the Braithwaite viaduct – one of the oldest rail structures in the world – will be reincarnated as a “rich multi-layered three-dimensional landscape concept,” complete with bountiful retail pavilions and something that looks like a Swiss chalet.
Views of the new park are, as ever, carefully choreographed so as not to show the seven towers of luxury flats that will loom over your head as you and the rest of Tech City guzzle your lunch on a small patch of grass. There may only be 10% affordable housing in the £800 m development – in boroughs where policy aims for up to 50% – but oh! How about that lovely multi-layered landscape concept? Just look at those bushes ..."