Joanna Lumley OBE’s spirited case for a garden bridge, in front of a room full of the very best of London’s cultural community and Boris Johnson’s deputy mayor for Education and Culture, Munira Mirza, was the highlight of last night’s celebration of the launch of the Mayor’s most recent report, entitled “Take a Closer Look – A Cultural Tourism Vision for London 2015-2017”.
The report sets out what the Mayor’s office hopes to achieve in London over the next three years and was based on a series of consultations carried out by the Mayor’s cultural team and Creative Tourist with almost 100 organisations. Those taking part included the Arts Council of Great Britain, VisitBritain, The Guild of Registered Tourist Guides, London’s borough councils, Secret Cinema, TheatreBreaks.co.uk, the Southbank Centre, the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum and to name but a few.
As well as new developments, such as the bridge and Olympicopolis in East London, the report spoke of the authentic, personal experiences that visitors to London are increasingly looking for. It also championed the importance of driving visitors beyond the 20 top visitor attractions that attract 90% of the visits and persuading them to take part in the complete “breadth and diversity of London’s cultural experience.”
As well as the improved dispersal of London’s visitors around its various parts, Boris is keen to create new attractions for future visitors, of which, Joanna Lumley’s bridge, which she first put forward as a memorial to the sad loss of Diana, Princess of Wales, is one of the highlights. Unfortunately the bridge is turning out to be a subject that is dividing London, philosophically, as surely as it aims to unite it geographically.
However well-intentioned Joanna Lumley’s desire to give London something that it would remember her by (and for much longer than anything she could do on stage, she joked last night) the subject of the garden bridge has become embroiled in political machinations as claims of double-dealing and broken promises on funding have sullied the project’s name.
To hear Joanna Lumley speak about the bridge, of the private green places that will lure visitors across the river, of the micro-ecosystem that will be such a feature the bridge, the sounds of the birds, the colours of the butterflies, the smell of leaves, is to momentarily allow the heart rule the mind.
The heart will tell you that open central London spaces are important, but the mind will tell you that the city is already blessed with thousands of acres of green space: from royal parks to rooftop gardens. The river Thames itself already provides a swathe of clear sky through the heart of the city.
The mind tells us that we need to improve links between south and north London but the heart quickly forgets (and Lumley herself admits) that the bridge is designed to slow this movement down to a speed at which, the 7 million estimated visitors, can enjoy the sites on both banks; not get from one to the other as quickly as possible.
But London doesn’t always get what it needs and just because it doesn’t “need” a garden bridge will not be argument enough not to build one.
It is a typically potty, typically English scheme that will probably go ahead despite a High Court Appeal launched against it last month. We will find out soon whether it is successful or not and, whatever happens, the bridge must be completed by 2018 when work on London’s supersewer will take precedence.
As Boris Johnson says in his Welcome at the beginning of the report, London needs to “stay ahead of the game” by continually updating its cultural offering if it is to “remain a world capital of culture” and, in his mind (and the mind of Joanna Lumley), that world capital includes a Garden Bridge.