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February 2, 2008 12:14 am
“London’s streets are in a very sad state,” sighs Terry Brown, of the intriguingly named Bring Fronts Back campaign. “Brutal adaptations” have left much of the British capital looking like an “awful desert wasteland”, he says. “Many people seem to have abandoned any interest in their front gardens whatsoever, so long as they can get a four-by-four up the drive.”
The figures bear him out. “One-third of the total green space in London is private gardens,” says Carlo Laurenzi, chief executive of the London Wildlife Trust. “Yet they are disappearing fast. London has lost 30 per cent of its front gardens in recent years”. That is an area 22 times the size of the city’s sprawling Hyde Park.
There are many reasons to lament such a loss, including one very pressing one: paved front gardens, according to the recently published interim conclusions of a government inquiry, were an important factor in the devastating flooding in England last summer, in which – amid the wettest season since records began, when an additional volume of rain fell equal to four times the amount of water in all the lakes in England and Wales combined – 13 people died and 48,000 homes were inundated.
Surface water flooding – when drains, as opposed to waterways, overflow – was much more prominent than in previous floods, according to the inquiry, and this is where front gardens come in. Paving over one garden is insignificant, says Leigh Hunt, the co-author of a Royal Horticultural Society publication on the subject, but when, as often happens, all the neighbours follow suit, “you are, in effect, almost tripling the width of the road”. In a downpour there is too little exposed earth to soak up the water and a residential street becomes like a giant sluice.
“Paving over of front gardens is going to become more and more of an issue as severe weather events become more common,” says Hunt. And the experience of London is instructive for other densely populated cities around the world.
Yet there are powerful incentives to pave. Research by the property search engine Zoomf found that Londoners will pay on average 7.5 per cent more for a home with a parking space; in central London, says the estate agency Savills, a car space can add as much as £250,000 to the value of a property.
The pay-off is at least as high in the case of “garden grabbing” – when flats are plonked down where a garden used to be: the new residences might cost £100 a sq ft to build and sell at about £1,000 a sq ft, according to the agents Glentree International.
But paving profit cannot be so swiftly worked out. The Zoomf research showed that people will pay even more for a home with a garden, while also pointing out the often exorbitant cost of running a car – especially, in the case of London, when the congestion charge introduced by the mayor to combat pollution and glacially slow traffic is taken into account.
Paving proves a fragile thing financially. The evidence, according to Laurenzi, is that “where only one or two houses in a street have paved over front gardens, the individual prices of those houses will go up. But when every house in the street does it, it reduces the value of everyone’s house.”
Whichever the case, gardeners will have no truck with these cold-hearted calculations. The once lively space of the British front garden has shown a dramatic decline. The anterior plot, as we know it today, came into being in the mid-19th century, explains Tim Richardson, a garden critic and trustee of the Garden History Society. Its first incarnation was the “gardenesque” style trumpeted by the indefatigable Victorian horticulturist John Claudius Loudon. A thrillingly exotic plant such as a yukka typically took centre stage, surrounded by gravel and “possibly a little edging bed”.
That gave way to a retrogressive, quasi-Jacobean style in which topiary predominated; that was followed, in turn, in the 1910s and 1920s, by an arts and crafts garden, with wishing wells, à la mode crazy paving and rose bushes lining a path to the front door. The 1930s saw the ascent of rockeries – miniature “quotations”, as front gardens usually are, explains Richardson, of what was to be found in the back. Then followed by the postwar cottage garden and, in the 1960s, finally, the advent of the garden as an “outdoor room”.
A tour of the front-yard-scape in my south London neighbourhood reveals a much less fecund scene. Cracked, stained tarmac rules – scattered with the detritus of last Saturday night, garlanded with the odd tatty hedge and serving only as firm support for a dull regiment of wheelie bins.
The front yard is an ambiguous space, a no man’s land between the public domain of the street and the private one of the house, and that uncertain status might partly explain its neglect. Behind it you will often find magnificent interiors and equally marvellous back gardens: a symptom, perhaps, of the general retreat from commonly owned things, such as streets, that characterises modern Britain and other western societies.
But the transitional status of the front garden also makes it ripe with opportunity. As cuisine is to the French, gardening, says Richardson, “is the vernacular British art form”. For Brown, who is a partner with GMW architects, the front yard “should be part of how we express ourselves and change our mood as we move from a public zone to a private one”.
If you must cover your frontage, use something permeable, Hunt advises, from simple gravel to “the ultimate in recycled material”, resin-bonded crushed beer bottles. Then plant up, with climbers or wall shrubs, the “dead space” that will remain around a car in even the smallest yard. Laurenzi suggests the reviving of hawthorn or blackthorn hedges – tough traditional species that will feed and shelter the birds and insects evicted from the city by mass garden clearance.
More daring inspiration is to be found overseas. Susan Harris, a garden coach and blogger, tells me of the lush woodland and meadow gardens proliferating in her suburb near Washington DC – ostentatious challenges to the normally sedate British front.
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