By Ellen Greenberg
Planners revere Jane Jacobs for her ideas and her activism. Her ideas and her writings have been stunningly influential even if her direct impact on the built environment is harder to pinpoint. If the civil engineering profession is to have an idol (to my knowledge this post is not currently filled, but I do hope my readers will correct me on this point if I’ve got it wrong), it will need to be someone with a clear legacy of built work as well as influential ideas.
Readers of David McCullough’s engineering histories might well nominate the heroes of the Panama Canal or Brooklyn Bridge (John Roebling and offspring), and railway enthusiasts will certainly argue for Brunel, but my time in London has made me into a big advocate for Joseph Bazelgette. Bazelgette’s name, as his work, keeps appearing in different forms during my London sojourn. Yesterday I was reminded of this again – surprisingly during a garden tour at the Inner Temple. I might have realised that Bazelgette’s name would come up, as the garden occupies prime real estate in the City of London immediately north of the Thames.
The Inner Temple, formally The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple is described on Wikipedia as
one of the four Inns of Court (professional associations for barristers and judges) in London. To be called to the Bar and practise as a barrister in England and Wales an individual must belong to one of these Inns.
There has been a garden on the Inner Temple site since the 12th century. For hundreds of years it formed a direct connection to the Thames, as shown in the detail above. Now, however, the south side of the garden rises to The Broad Walk shown in the photo at left, an allee of double plane trees edged by an iron fence separating it from the pavement (“sidewalk” to us Americans), carriageway and riverfront promenade of the Victoria embankment. The feature photo at the start of this post shows the top of the slope in the garden, the roadway and the river beyond.
We were lucky to have a chance to chat with Andrea Brunsendorf, Inner Temple Head Gardener, who explained that this separation from the river edge, as well as the rise to the garden’s Broad Walk, was a result of the work of Joseph Bazelgette. In fact, it is a consequence of the project that brought Bazelgette his greatest and most lasting fame – the creation of London’s modern sewer network in response to the “Great Stink” of 1858 and the cholera epidemic in the city earlier that decade.
Bazelgette’s design for the Embankment, implemented in the second half of the 19th century with construction beginning in 1862, raised the level of the river edge, creating the subsurface space needed for the low-level sewer and also for an underground railway (today the District and Circle lines run below). The works reclaimed 22 acres of land from the river and included a retaining wall along the north side of the Thames. It is this astounding combination of purposes that has been referenced frequently in my time here.
“Do more with less” and “smarter not bigger” are phrases I hear on both sides of the Atlantic. “Multifunctionality” and “co-benefits” have become buzzwords and objectives of project after project. Our current emphasis on civil infrastructure that betters the public realm also finds inspiration along the Embankment and other Bazelgette projects like the Hammersmith Bridge, increasing the value and relevance of his legacy. Not surprising then, that his name pops up again and again.
On a neighbourhood exploration one day I came across an English Heritage Blue Plaque and learned that Bazelgette lived nearby on Hamilton Avenue in Maida Vale, and, happily, that he was recognised for his contributions. When I went to an event at the Institution of Civil Engineers Headquarters at One Great George Street (worth a visit), he was memorialised more grandly.
At the office, preparation for a workshop on London’s infrastructure generated comments about Bazelgette’s designs for the embankment. The outcome, wrapping together public health (the sewer), multi modal mobility (the underground, carriageway and pavements), public realm (riverfront promenade), flood control (retaining wall) and land reclamation, seemed the ideal inspiration for a morning spent in a discussion of how to solve London’s infrastructure crunch by doing more for less, smarter not bigger, etc.
The power and current relevance of Bazelgette’s ideas about engineering, and the impact of his built legacy, earn him my vote as the engineers’ Jane Jacobs, even though there’s no election on. (at least not on this topic!)
For another post on London’s development history inspired by Open Garden Squares weekend, see Public, Private and Pride
Additional images of Inner Temple Gardens are in Open Gardens Slideshow
There’s loads of information online about Bazelgette. For information about the Temple Gardens, go to:
We had a chance to visit the garden on a Saturday and chat with Andrea because it is Open Garden Squares Weekend. You can read about the event and London’s many usually-locked gardens, at
If you’ll be in London in mid-September, you may want to take part in the sister event, Open House London. Read about it and related architecture-enthusiast activities at
The Institution of Civil Engineers headquarters is a stunning building. Apparently now closed for renovations. Info at: