Guest article: let’s beat terror by making London’s bridges bloom

This guest piece is written by Jack Sallabank, a founder of The Future Places Studio which says: “Our mission is to support placemakers to develop inspiring, safe and inclusive towns and cities”. Jack has previously worked on an education hub in Hammersmith, called EdCity. He is full of good ideas. Here’s one of them.

Just after 10.00 pm on Saturday 3 June, a white van mounted the pavement on London Bridge and drove south into pedestrians walking on it before crashing near the Barrowboy and Banker pub. The three men inside got out and attacked people in Borough Market, before police shot them dead. It was the second terrorist attack to involve a motor vehicle on the pavement of a bridge across the Thames in the space a few months, following the Westminster Bridge attack in March.

London responded quickly. Within days, motorway barriers and steel blockades were being installed along the main bridges in Central London. As the last bolts were fixed in place, a new chapter in the history of our bridges was being written.

The attacks were all the more poignant for their locations. Perhaps nothing better illustrates London’s development into a prosperous, multicultural city than its relationship with the Thames. Historically, the river has provided a number of key functions, including a trade route between east and west and a defendable north-south barrier in times of conflict.

The current London Bridge, opened in 1973, was the latest in a succession of crossings using that name in the same location. The Romans were the first to span the river very close to the same point, and constructed a permanent timber one in around 55 AD. A successor, nowadays known as the Old London Bridge, was built in 1209 and lasted more than 600 years. A “New” London Bridge replaced it in 1831, surviving until 1967. These bridges meant connectivity and opportunity. It is sad that in 2017 the protective motorway barriers symbolise that they have come to also mean fear.

To try to change that, I partnered up with the fantastic team at BD Landscape Architects to find an alternative. Safety was the priority, but we wanted a solution which stood for resilience and spirit. We have proposed that London’s bridges should be made safer for pedestrians by replacing concrete barriers with planters, bursting with biodiverse, scented and pollinator flowers; species that filter out hydrocarbons and help improve air quality. Within the planters could be integrated reservoirs to gather rainfall and enable self-irrigation. Bench seating fitted with wi-fi hotspots and USB points can be built into the planters so that our bridges are transformed from frantic thoroughfares into places where people want to stop and look out across London. We called this the BloomBridge concept.

On given weekends the bridges could be closed to traffic for an afternoon, enabling a community of people young and old to come together and turn them into an oasis of colour. Live music, entertainment and food stalls would celebrate London’s new green bridges. The BloomBridge concept would show that London can win when it fights terror with spirit, rather than steel. Faced with adversity, spirit is what Londoners show. Confronted with danger we respond with resilience. When the city hurts you see love and compassion. Terrorist attacks on any city seeks to destroy such spirit, break the resilience and drive a wedge between communities. But after every tragic incident, the response from Londoners is the same: “You will not beat us, love will always defeat evil.”

Before London’s bridges were hit, we had seen vehicle attacks on other types of pedestrian space in Nice and Berlin. Stockholm was struck by one in April and Barcelona has since been added to the list. Italian architect Stefano Boeri recently suggested something similar to BloomBridge, proposing that European cities at risk be redesigned to include more trees and bulky planters rather than concrete barriers. “We cannot afford to see the thousands of squares and public spaces present in the hundreds of European cities transformed into war check-points,” Boeri told the design magazine Dezeen. His compatriot, artist Michelangelo Pistoletto, told the Times that concrete blocks in cities “wounded the spirit”, and has argued for large, decorated tubs where locals could plant vegetables instead.

In London, the Mayor’s cycling and walking commissioner, Will Norman, is working with the relevant agencies to think through possible options. The GLA, TFL, London’s local authorities and national government have a duty to mirror Londoners’ response to the attacks. The motorway barriers might provide safety, but they are hostile and ugly reminders of past incidents. Instead, our safety measures should commemorate lost lives and take a stride into the future.

4 Comments

  1. There’s huge irony in that the impetus to get rid of ‘street furniture’ in order to create an uncluttered and friendlier public space, which led to the iron fence along London Bridge being dismantled about 8 years ago was what was exploited by the terrorists. I love mini parks like the one in Well Street in Hackney, and I think it’s a brilliant idea to break up public space to make it at once friendlier while addressing current terrorist methods. Also: a great slap in the face for Garden Bridge nitwits.

  2. The real danger for Londoners is traffic. Bad driving and vehicle pollution kills way more people than terrorism.
    An ill-conceived plan that removes cycle lanes from our bridges does our city no good whatsoever.

  3. It’s an obvious solution but one that doesn’t engage with any of the other debates happening in London with regards to active travel (cycling, walking), budget cuts (less money for public realm maintanence) or Road capacity (unprecedented numbers of cars, bus use). So I’m not sure it’s as bold as it would like to see.

  4. Inclusive good ideas ? Bit of an obstacle course on the cycleway, and I’m not sure that the summer flowers and butterflies will absorb all the NO2 and SO2 they’ve got floating about. The speedy reaction to the van attack was to take out half of the cycleway, leaving people on bikes sandwiched between vehicles and the metal barrier, it would be good if the design included making safe and pleasant space for cycling too. That was one big failing of the garden bridge folly.

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