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Leamouth: How Trinity Buoy Wharf could combine a river crossing with flats

Living Bridge would join agreed Hercules plan over the Lea to connect Newham and Tower Hamlets

An artist's impression of USM's Living Bridge idea
An artist’s impression of USM’s Living Bridge idea

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It starts with an idea. The concept of people living on bridges isn’t new – they’ve been doing that for hundreds of years all over the world.

But Urban Space Management’s (USM) “aspirational” suggestion for a residential crossing at Trinity Buoy Wharf, spanning the mouth of the River Lea still feels a little bit visionary.  

There’s something inherently attractive about inhabiting structures over water. Looking back, we have the historical romance of the Old London Bridge and the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, for example. 

Flowing forward, there’s author William Gibson’s sci-fi vision of a jerry-built, self-governing shanty town clinging to the steel bones of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge.

This imaginary leap into a near future – where a ribbon of infrastructure is repurposed by a passionate, vibrant community of squatters, reacting to the pressures of insufficient housing and oppression – is a flash of what necessity and collaboration might be capable of. It’s counter-cultural, haphazard and seductive.

USM’s plan for a Living Bridge has something of both examples.

It’s a functional proposal – a connection to Royal Docks for pedestrians and cyclists that would ensure a flow of traffic through the existing site. 

But it’s also the root of a future community, with around 70 properties suspended from the steel arch that would support the entire structure – brought to life in Cartwright Pickard’s illustrative designs. 

USM founding director Eric Reynolds
USM founding director Eric Reynolds

Access to the river would be preserved for taller vessels with a section of the bridge able to lift to allow safe passage.

Planning permission has already been granted for one crossing in the area – Hercules Bridge over the Lea on the northern edge of Ballymore’s Goodluck Hope development. 

If built, this would connect to both a footpath towards Canning Town station as well as to the Lower Lea Crossing flyover for access to Royal Docks.

USM is currently gathering feedback on a range of ideas to improve connectivity in and around Trinity Buoy Wharf, with a consultation running until July 20, 2022.

Its plans aim to help overcome barriers such as roads, rivers and railways to make journeys that are complicated now, simpler in the future.

USM founding director Eric Reynolds said: “Right from the beginning, I thought the problem for this whole bit of London was that it is disconnected from itself in every way. 

“Standing on the roof of the building that’s now occupied by Faraday Prep School at Trinity Buoy Wharf in the late 1990s, it was clear we should be doing something about this.

“Our outline planning application for the site allows us to build a bridge as a continuation of Orchard Place because it always seemed to me that the Lea should have more than a road bridge over it – there should also be something for pedestrians and cyclists.

“We should be connecting people, not just for us, but also for people living north and east of here – in Canning Town for example.

“They should see the river as part of their back or front garden, not something that’s just hidden away.”

A rendering of the Living Bridge by night
A rendering of the Living Bridge by night

The case for a second bridge becomes increasingly clear when future development is taken into account.

The Thameside West scheme is expected to deliver some 5,000 new homes just across the river as well as a new DLR station, a school and industrial and creative workspaces.

“One of the things we did achieve years ago was to persuade the DLR planners to leave a straight bit of track on that land to allow potential for that station,” said Eric.

“It didn’t make sense then, but, with thousands of homes and a new town centre coming, it does now.

“Regarding the bridge – it may be that we put homes on it, we don’t know yet. We think there are two good reasons for doing it.

Firstly it creates new land and a new opportunity for a community.

“Secondly, in doing that, it offsets the cost of the bridge – so there’s an economic and a social argument.

“The Living Bridge would also be a big signpost to the importance and value of the River Lea, which was a vital part of the transport of this area – a line of power and industry – before it silted up. It deserves that recognition.

“Imagine coming up the Thames and seeing this out-of-scale bridge, all lit up with people living inside it.

“I really think it would appeal to Londoners – every building along the river is worked so as many properties as possible have views of the water.

“Here it would be right underneath – with no risk of anyone building in front of or behind you.”

An artist’s impression of the Hercules Bridge proposal

But does an area that is already connected to Canning Town via London City Island’s bridge and, potentially the already agreed Hercules Bridge really need another crossing?

“At the moment, the existing bridge takes you to the top of London City Island but we have an awful lot of walkers, dog owners, cyclists, hikers and so on who come to Trinity Buoy Wharf and would really like not to have to go back on themselves,” said Eric.

“The Hercules Bridge gives people the chance to do something different – to walk round the edge of the Lea and follow the river north. 

“What the Living Bridge would do is to make it much easier to follow the Thames along the southern edge of Royal Docks as far as Barrier Park.

“It increases the potential for pedestrians and cyclists to reach these areas.

“It’s also in some ways an attempt to re-invent a community that was here in the past.

“There was a small fishing community and a school here, which was wiped away when local authorities decided that slum clearances were the thing to do.

“There also used to be a little ferry that took people across the Lea because the Thames Ironworks and Orchard Wharf needed to get their workers to work.

“During the Crossrail Works, the foundations for that ferry were found, so this has grown partly out of what we perceive as a respect for the past and an aspiration for the future.”

At present Trinity Buoy Wharf is a dead end for walkers and cyclists
At present Trinity Buoy Wharf is a dead end for walkers and cyclists

Read more: Genomics England set for relocation to Canary Wharf

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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River Lea: How Cody Dock’s new rolling bridge unlocks the project’s potential

Hand-cranked structure designed by Thomas Randall-Page allows the dock to be reflooded

The rolling bridge will transform Cody Dock
The rolling bridge will transform Cody Dock

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There can be few pieces of infrastructure in the world that so succinctly represent the story and future of a project in the way Cody Dock’s rolling bridge does.

Recently tested for the first time, it’s the culmination of years of work – an elegant, ground-breaking solution that’s at once simple, highly engineered and not insubstantially bonkers.

The Gasworks Dock Partnership (GDP) has, with the help of more than 11,000 volunteers, spent the last 13-and-a-half years working to clear and regenerate an unloved patch of industrial land on the River Lea – used for many years as a toxic tip. 

A major milestone in that project will be the re-flooding of the dock itself.

With the junk cleared and the polluted sludge beneath painstakingly removed, the GDP always knew it needed to sort out a solution to the crude dam that currently provides a bridge over the dock entrance, but also blocks access from the tidal waters of the river.

GDP co-founder and CEO Simon Myers had duly found an off-the-shelf rising bascule bridge from Holland that would do the job – bridging the gap and opening when necessary to let ships in.

Planning permission was applied for and granted. But then something happened.

Bridge designer Thomas Randall-Page
Bridge designer Thomas Randall-Page

“It always starts with a conversation in a pub, doesn’t it?” said Thomas Randall-Page, designer of Cody Dock’s rolling bridge.

“Somebody told me Simon was building a new bridge, that it was a product from Holland and that it wasn’t the most interesting thing.

“I didn’t have any work at the time – I’d just quit my job to set up my own practice and I approached Simon and asked if I could counter-propose something that people would come and visit rather than just walk across.

“He said that would be fine, because they already had planning permission for the other bridge and I was doing it for free.

“Then I went off to help my friend move her canal boat and spent two weeks going through locks and looking at all this amazing Victorian infrastructure – most of it counter-balanced and low energy.

“So I started to think about an opening bridge but one that worked in a way that had never been done before.”

The rolling bridge has now been finished and awaits its official launch
The rolling bridge has now been finished and awaits its official launch

The result was a model for a rolling bridge, produced in partnership with structural engineers Price & Myers.

Operated by a hand crank, the whole structure inverts on tracks, raising the footway high above any ships that want to gain access to the dock.

“In a way it’s the opposite of the bascule bridge, because that’s all hydraulic – like trying to lift something at arm’s length – so a lot of energy goes into it,” said Thomas.

“This one is a very balanced system with counterweights, so it’s going to be manual – you just turn a handle and wind it over.

“It will be quite slow, but people will be able to do it themselves and hopefully others will come to watch it open.”

While Simon and the GDP team were immediately attracted by Thomas’ proposal, they put it through a rigorous process of assessment to ensure it was something that would both work at scale and could be built within budget.

“We knew we were taking quite a big risk with something that’s untried – to our knowledge, this is the only bridge of its kind in the world,” said Simon.

“Thomas gave us what we needed to convince our board and we decided to re-apply for planning permission, although he had to wait five years for us to give him a call and say we’d found the money and were actually going to build it.

The bridge rolls on steam-bent oak, guided by metal teeth
The bridge rolls on steam-bent oak, guided by metal teeth

“That was about a year ago and he engaged Price & Myers to work on it, all knowing that there was a fixed budget that we simply couldn’t go over.

“From the outset, everyone was committed – there has been blood, sweat and tears poured into it, nobody has made any money but they all wanted to make it work. 

“That’s really humbling – it shows there’s a different economy at work, one where people do things because they are passionate and excited about them – when do you get the chance to roll a 12-tonne cube of steel by hand except on a project like this? 

“The bridge is the most significant structure here. The dock itself is important, but it’s no good if boats can’t get in and out – it’s a statement of intent that we are bold and ambitious here. 

“It’s our first really big commission, it puts a marker down and it raises our game – with 400 names of those involved in its construction engraved on it, it really is a bridge of the people.”

The structure rolls on a pair of tracks like a giant cog
The structure rolls on a pair of tracks like a giant cog

Thomas added: “I started designing the bridge seven years ago, so to finally see it in place is both surreal and great – really amazing,” said Thomas.

“It’s better than I’d hoped. Cake Industries, who fabricated it, have been really helpful. There’s been so much goodwill in the whole team – a really collaborative and open process.

“Everyone felt like this was a project we really have to get right. It’s something special.”

So there you have it – a £260,000 bridge that will officially open later this year and last for the next 125.

It’s both a testament to the whole project’s collaborative nature and a gateway to a future that’s looking especially bright at present, with a the construction of a new visitors’ centre and a wash block already underway. 

With repair of the dock wall progressing and pilings in place at its far end too, GDP can now plan to re-flood the dock, creating residential moorings and a dry dock facility on-site.

Cody Dock is always looking for volunteers and companies to help it achieve its aims – you can find our more here.

When fully inverted, the bridge allows taller ships underneath
When fully inverted, the bridge allows taller ships underneath

Read more: Artist creates pieces for Pride Month across Canary Wharf

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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