Green Space in Cities: The Decline of London’s Gardens

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By Anna Simpson at Forum for the Future

Come to London by Eurostar, and the tracks stop a stone’s throw from Camley Street Nature Reserve: two acres of wild green space where you can spot reed warblers, kingfishers and butterflies. It’s almost impossible to imagine that less than 30 years ago this valuable resource was a flattened coal yard.

This site of transformation offered a great backdrop this morning to the launch of the first major report into London’s gardens. These green spaces are also in a phase of change, and we’ve only just found out.

Thanks to organisations like London Wildlife Trust and Greenspace Information for Greater London (GiGL), we know a lot about the capital’s parks and woodland and the species that live there. But before Chloe Smith, author of ‘London: Garden City?’, began her research, we knew very little about London’s 3 million garden plots.

We think of gardens as a private thing, perhaps even a personal indulgence. We cloister them with high walls and thick shrubs. They exist for our comfort: our BBQs and reclining chairs, our patios and tool sheds.

What we tend to forget is that our lawns, flowerbeds and vegetable patches add up to a significant share of the capital’s land: approximately 24% of London’s total land area. Their habitat potential is enormous.

And the benefits aren’t just for biodiversity. They keep our streets cool and drain our water. Put vegetation on the roof and climbers on the wall, and your garden will double up as a duvet for your home.

Smith used two sets of aerial photos to peer over our garden walls and reveal their secrets. The results are published in ‘London: Garden City?’, produced in collaboration with London Wildlife Trust, GiGL and the Greater London Authority.

The good news, says Smith, is that London’s gardens are “very green”, with 57% of land taken up by lawn, tree canopy and other vegetation.

The bad news, her work reveals, is that this greenery is declining – at a depressing rate of 2.5 “Hyde Parks” a year (that’s about 875 acres). We’re also seeing a parallel increase in hard surfacing and new build, and so we know that – perhaps for ease of maintenance and practicality – people are choosing patios and parking space over vegetable plots and wild gardens.

So how can we turn this trend around? Smith wants to see a wider campaign come out of her research. “We need to help people to see that the small changes they make to their private plots have a big impact on London’s landscape”, she says.

Urban ecologist Mathew Frith of London Wildlife Trust shares her vision: “It’d be great for every Londoner with a garden patch to have mix of wetland, pond, dead wood, ideally a tree…”

The key, Smith believes, will be giving people tailored advice. While London has its share of green-fingered enthusiasts, it also has many time-poor home owners and landlords who simply want the easiest option. “And that’s ok”, says Smith. “We can’t bully people into wildlife gardening”.

So how can we make gardening both easy and attractive? And what role can retailers, community groups and employers play?

One not-to-be-missed opportunity is the domestic energy efficiency agenda. If we’re going into homes to improve their insulation, why not add a green roof, some climbing plants, and a rainwater harvesting system while we’re at it?

Read this article’s companion piece: What’s a Tree Really Worth?

This article originally appeared on the website of independent sustainability experts Forum for the Future.

Image courtesy of Bunch & Duke on flickr