An under-designed, oversized development could be lurking behind that shrubbery

Who could say no to a garden? What heartless planning committee could turn down the leafy lure of a new linear park, or the Baby­lonian fantasy of a hanging sky garden – the silvan charm of a forest on a bridge, or the pastoral dream of a garden city? Few can resist the promise of a few plants. But they should.

A squirt of garden fertilizer has become the de facto lubricant in our planning system, used to blind planners and councillors into cheerful submission. It is applied to any project, no matter the scale or context, to help ease it through the hoops, conveniently hiding the realities of oversized and under-designed developments behind the shrubbery.

The so-called Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street was the chief factor that allowed the Walkie-Talkie to be built, outside the City of London’s planned ‘cluster’, lumbering into cherished views and obscuring the right to light of innumerable neighbours. But such breaches were forgiven because of the promised jungle in the clouds at its summit, a new public piazza for the Square Mile. The finished result is, of course, nothing of the sort: it comprises a pair of underwhelming rockeries, the wilted garnish on a corporate lobby, for which booking in advance is mandatory.

On Thomas Heatherwick’s magical Garden Bridge, a similar story emerges. The planting may be choreographed by TV’s own Dan Pearson, but a closer look reveals a total area of greenery smaller than half a football pitch, which will be closed to the public at night and require reservations for groups. The visualisations, as for the Sky Garden, depict a fecund floral utopia – but the reality, again, is likely to be closer to some pot-plants clinging on for dear life above the windswept river.

Visualisations for the Garden Bridge depict a fecund floral utopia – but the reality is likely to be closer to some pot-plants clinging on for dear life above the windswept river

Across London, a strategy of Potemkin planting is being used to pull the wool over planners’ eyes, with little mirages of parkland conjured up to distract from what’s really happening over the garden fence. At Bishopsgate Goodsyard in Shoreditch, a ‘mini High Line’ has been proposed atop a crumbling railway viaduct, which will be a long-awaited and potentially magnificent thing. New York’s beguiling elevated park has proved to be a real estate gold mine – attracting over $2bn in private investment since it opened and seeing local property prices more than double – but the Goodsyard developer, Hammerson and Ballymore, clearly isn’t willing to wait. Its elevated pocket park (‘a rich multi-layered three-dimensional landscape concept’) will be loomed over by a wall of seven towers, rising to more than 40 storeys. It is exploiting the garden not as a regenerative catalyst, but as a bargaining tool to get away with gross over-development.

Over at Nine Elms, the same thing is happening on a much larger scale, where a 1km-long sliver of green is planned as a ‘sustainable green backbone’ for the high-security fortress of luxury apartments and embassies sprouting along this part of the Thames. The verge is described by the developer, Bally­more again, as an ‘extraordinary green channel’, its edges ‘lined with attractions to draw people in and activate the space’. With most units being marketed overseas as buy-to-leave investments, it’s painfully naïve to suppose that grass = bustling community. If the park has any purpose, it is as a ‘visual amenity’ for owners of the £9m penthouses above – if they ever bother to collect the keys, that is.

It may be a scourge on the city, but the countryside isn’t safe from the curse of the garden appendage either. The Tory-led government has realised that adding the word ‘garden’ to ‘city’ conjures images of dear old Ebenezer and his socialist ideals, while allowing it to extend sprawling suburbia into the green-belt, with none of the land reform of the original garden city vision. So next time you hear the g-word, get out the weedkiller and see what’s really lurking behind the foliage. 

Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at The Guardian. Read him here every other month and at ribaj.com


Flowery language

Planners are also partial to the occasional green-fingered metaphor. ‘The City of London is like a garden,’ according to its former chief planner, Peter Rees. ‘You find out which plants are doing well, free up space around them if they’re being choked by weeds, then turf out the plants that aren’t doing so well and try some new species.’