diamond geezer

 Monday, November 19, 2012

Plans are afoot for a new bridge across the Thames. A new footbridge, that is, between the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Hammersmith and Fulham. It'd be built roughly halfway along a mile-long gap between Wandsworth Bridge and Battersea Bridge, allowing pedestrians and cyclists to nip between the two sides of the Thames without having to make an annoying detour. Sounds like a sensible idea, no?

The project takes advantage of the railway bridge that already crosses here, ferrying the Overground between Clapham Junction and Imperial Wharf. Once there's one bridge in a particular location, logic has it, local residents are far less likely to object to the construction of another. Plus it'd be convenient to have the choice of foot, bike or rail to cross the river, especially when this is one of the busiest parts of the Overground and trains can be chocker.

The plans have been put forward by a "small, efficient and ambitious" architectural practice based on the Battersea banks of the Thames. They'd be a beneficiary of any new bridge, obviously, but so would thousands of others, and maybe it takes a local eye to spot the necessity of such a project. The "evening economy circuit" would benefit, apparently, as it became easier to visit cross-river restaurants and walk home afterwards. In particular those on the Battersea side of the Thames would be able to cross easily to reach Imperial Wharf station, which otherwise lies frustratingly out of reach, and from there gain access to the rest of the rail network.

An application for planning permission was submitted last week, and the scheme duly made ripples in the London media. But is this a genuine proposal, or is it just a bunch of architects making a noise in an attempt to get noticed? I headed down to Battersea Reach to take a look, and I have my doubts.

The problem's on the Sands End side. The western end of the footbridge would land in one of the most public-unfriendly parts of the capital, on the boundary between the Imperial Wharf and Chelsea Harbour developments. "PRIVATE PROPERTY" scream the notices on the embankment waterways. "This site is protected by 24 hour security guards and full CCTV coverage." There are cameras everywhere, undoubtedly linked to some paid-for control room, lest any non-resident interloper create too much disturbance within these luxury environs. A lot of very rich people moved to this dead-end location in order to be tucked away inside their own semi-private enclave. The last thing they want is oiks from Battersea traipsing through.

The Chelsea Harbour side of the railway has pretty poor public access. The entire site is covered by a labyrinth of luxury apartments nestled around a central marina, and there's no way that would be an acceptable exit for cyclists. One main access road slinks round the back of the site, along the viaduct, but that's not exactly welcoming. "No vehicles except for loading and access." "In the interest of public safety Cycling, Skating and Rollerblading are not permitted." And on the road down to the riverfront "Taxis/Chauffeurs Only." I told you they were posh round here. Management really aren't going to want to make this the main way on and off a bridge.

Fortunately the footbridge is due to land on the opposite side of the railway viaduct, on the Imperial Wharf side. Unfortunately several large apartment blocks have been built along the waterfront, all with prestige views, entirely blocking the route to the road network beyond. There's a cut-through 300m upriver, but detouring that far would be annoying, plus cycling's persona non grata around here. The only viable access would be the direct route along the edge of the railway viaduct, except these are private gardens and they're gated shut at the far end. Residents would have to sacrifice their exterior space if this new bridge went ahead, and I'm not sure I can see that happening.

There are two piers here, one on either side of the railway bridge. For the Diamond Jubilee Pageant the Queen embarked on her royal barge from the Chelsea Harbour pier, so there are plans to name this the Jubilee Footbridge if it comes to pass. A nice heart-tugging touch, even if anniversary projects are usually designed to open in the specific year rather than two years late. Except the designers would rather not call it just the "Jubilee Footbridge". They propose selling off the naming rights to anyone who can afford £22m, because that would pay for the construction costs so the connection could be "gifted to London at no cost to the taxpayer". Sigh.

We appear to have entered an era when paying to get your brand's name on the map of London is deemed wholly acceptable. Britain's football stadia succumbed first, then we got an entertainment venue named after a mobile phone company, and most recently a cablecar named after a Middle Eastern airline. "It wouldn't get built otherwise," is the mantra, "don't you know there's a recession on?" The public gets something it can use, and a brand name is shoehorned into our everyday lives. Alternatively Londoners could pay £3 each to get this new bridge built, in the old fashioned way via fares and taxation, but you get stared at in a funny way if you suggest that these days.

Whatever, there is one possibly entertaining result if this particular bit of infrastructure gets a brand slapped on it. Can you imagine how the oligarch residents of Chelsea Harbour would react if this bridge were named something unpleasantly downmarketly inappropriate? The Easyjet Jubilee Footbridge. The QVC Jubilee Footbridge. The Virgin Broadband Jubilee Footbridge. OK, it's not likely. But then the chances of this bridge coming to pass in the first place don't look that likely, given the potential access issues on the western bank. Don't hold your breath.

6pm update: Chris from architects One-world Design has posted a comment, which you can read here, and also emailed me a 4MB copy of the Design and Access statement. That's not yet in the public domain, but soon will be, and includes 46 pages of detailed information about the bridge, its design, and the support it has from the two local authorities. As you'd expect, the detail looks very well thought through. But on the subject of access by Imperial Wharf, all the document says is "Pedestrian and cycle access to the bridge is from the existing riverside walkway on the west bank". So to get to Fulham, a bit of a detour. And to get to Chelsea, a bit where you're forced to get off your bike and walk. Almost very well thought through.

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