August 9, 2013 7:16 pm

Gardens in the city sky

The roof garden is not just a sweet or beautiful place but also an ecologically useful one

How often do you leave a concert hall clutching a pepper plant, four shallots and a yellow courgette? I had been on the roof, rather than in the body, of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, taking a summer’s day peek at the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Neighbourhood (which runs until September 8), and I came away just as inspired as I have often been by great musical performances, but in a different way.

My head rang not with Mozartian melodies, but with a catalogue of English wildflowers and plants, all growing on a compact space of concrete roof between the Shell Centre and the National Theatre, an area of London more associated with brutalist 1960s and 1970s architecture than with vetch or marshmallow or viper’s bugloss.

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Harry Eyres

The QEH roof garden, designed by the Eden Project and originally planted for the Festival of Britain’s 60th anniversary celebration in 2011, has since doubled in size and been granted planning permission for another five years.

The garden is not so much a break with tradition as a continuation of founding ideals. As the Southbank Centre’s artistic director Jude Kelly explains: “When I was researching the original plans for Festival of Britain, I found they were full of greenery, water and light. Gardens were always part of it. People fetishise the concrete but the concrete was always just a canvas.” When the septuagenarian Dennis Crompton, one of the QEH’s original architects and a member of the radical 1960s and 1970s architectural collective Archigram, recently visited the site, he was overcome with emotion and said, “This is just what we wanted.”

Perhaps part of what he meant – given Archigram’s insistence on architecture as social process rather than marketable commodity – was that the garden’s function is by no means only aesthetic. It is not just a sweet or beautiful place (though it is that, and much appreciated by the public, especially on summer evenings when it is full to bursting) but also an ecologically and therapeutically useful one.

I was being shown around by the head gardener Paul Pulford, who is a living, breathing and irrepressibly communicative advertisement for the multiple ways in which gardening and greenery enhance psychological and environmental health.

With his tan and blond dreadlocks, Paul seems as full of vitality as the sunflowers, runner beans, tomatoes and cardoons growing not far from the strange pyramidal pimples of the Hayward Gallery roof. But only eight years ago he was living on the streets, a heroin addict and alcoholic with serious mental health problems.

Gardening saved his life. He had always loved it, having looked after the garden for his disabled father as a child at home in Hampshire, and he turned to it again in tough times. He created a vegetable and wildflower garden out of a patch of concrete at a hostel for homeless people run by Providence Row Housing Association (PRHA), a charity in London’s East End.

Soon Paul was starting a college course in conservation, then maintaining gardens in other hostels, then running a drop-in gardening club. Through a contact of his social worker at PRHA, Paul’s wildflower garden was entered for the 2009 Chelsea Flower Show and won a silver medal. A born leader, he now works with young offenders and runs teams tending gardens in local schools, as well as steering the gardeners from PRHA’s “Grounded: Ecotherapy” initiative who look after the QEH roof garden – many of whom are recovering addicts and alcoholics.

Beyond individual psychology, gardens on roofs and in other urban spaces are beneficial for our collective wellbeing. The green roof movement has been up and running for quite a long time – you could say since the time of sod roofs in parts of Scandinavia, which go back hundreds if not thousands of years; in its more recent incarnation in cities it is a few decades old.

Perhaps the most famous example is the green roof of Chicago’s City Hall, created under the direction of Mayor Richard Daley in 2000 as part of his pledge to transform Chicago into America’s “greenest city”.

At 38,000 sq ft, the Chicago green roof is more than three times the size of the Southbank Centre garden, and is truly impressive in its scale and its pioneering effort to mitigate the urban heat island effect, where built-up areas get much hotter than greener ones. It also absorbs rainwater.

Such an initiative is of global importance, and could save lives physically as well as spiritually as extreme weather events become more common.

But the QEH scores over Chicago City Hall, if not in size, then in accessibility. The fact that the roof garden is open to all makes it an educational and recreational resource as well as an ecological one.

And what a topsy-turvy world it is, where the widest range of British wildflowers in London grows on top of a concert-hall roof, where bees – threatened in the countryside – forage happily above the concrete causeways by the chartered Thames.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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