Hammersmith Bridge has been closed to motor vehicles since April and is likely to be shut to heavy traffic for several more years. Safety checks revealed the bearings had seized up due to corrosion, and hairline micro-fractures had appeared in the iron casings around the pedestals of the bridge.
Put simply, the Victorian Grade II structure was designed for horses and carts not 22,000 cars and 1,800 buses every day.
Hammersmith and Fulham Council has employed a team of specialist engineers to inspect and report on the full extent of the repair work needed. They are due to complete a full diagnosis by mid-August. The council is also monitoring the effect of the bridge’s closure across the borough.
This problem immediately presents at least two solutions, in the same way equations often have more than one solution. Possible solutions include strengthening it or using this tool – the bridge – differently.
A living lab
Let us look carefully at the repercussions of this second option.
We are in the middle of what is known technically as a living laboratory. Its closure is having immediate repercussions on the surrounding region that can be studied in detail.
I therefore propose that we think carefully about what we already know and what we can measure while the disruption caused by the closure is there.
A good tool for this type of exercise is something called Future Search, simply: to ask where are we from, where are we now, and where do we wish to be.
The next step is to ask what precisely are we studying.
Are we clear about the possible range of future scenarios? What have other people elsewhere with similar issues done? Are there solutions we have forgotten that with tweaking and modernising would work?
Might we have cut out possible solutions because we have framed the problem too narrowly?
As the old joke goes: 'How do I get to....?'
'Well, firstly I wouldn’t start from here.'
I would wish to ask a few key questions, what are the purposes of the streets, transport systems, water and land there? Do they really need to be doing what they are currently?
The importance of one real future scenario has not been recognised widely because it has been looked at in isolation and it has been framed strangely.
This is about taking e-cargo cycle logistics seriously, and joining them up with open source warehousing that is supplied not only by road but also probably primarily by rail and water. This causes a direct knock-on effect for rail, but this is one I think rail needs to tackle head on - on the issue of common carriage.
Rail is incredibly efficient, but there seem to be a series of self-imposed barriers in its thinking that mean it is not as efficient as it might be. Are there spare paths at night? Are there empty passenger carriages at night?
OK, convert some carriages to carry light goods when and where they are not carrying passengers. This has further knock-on effects because the logistics of loading and unloading light goods are similar – not identical – to issues of social inclusion and with good thoughtful design could be multi-purpose.
This immediately brings in different sources of funding to issues of inclusion. What are the effects of doing this? It reduces the need to use vans to deliver stuff, therefore wear and tear and congestion on roads (and bridges).
There is a second step, which could be taken in parallel.
Use the experience of places like the Netherlands - as has been replicated in local areas like Waltham Forest - of enabling living neighbourhoods, firstly by simple measures like filtered permeability and using 'no entry except cycling' rules. Then carefully roll these ideas out across the region around Hammersmith Bridge.
So what do we want to do, keep the status quo or make a huge difference across a region?
We have the opportunity to explore this proposal in detail. Hammersmith Bridge will be closed to heavy traffic for a considerable period.
Let us seriously explore if it really need to be reopened to heavy traffic. Possibly we should respect its original purpose. The engineer who built it, Bazelguette, knew how to build very heavy stuff. He decided not to. Maybe he was correct.
Clive is now retired and is the former chair of a co-operative housing association and director of a disabled persons organisation. His career has been in social work, housing and planning. He received a distinction for a dissertation on ecosystems shelter and society.