Throughout the country, front gardens are being ripped up to make way for cars. We are turning from a nation of gardeners into a nation of garagistesby Ken Worpole / April 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Spring, with its crocuses, daffodils and cherry blossom, no longer comes to every street in suburban Britain. Visiting a relative in Hainault, east London, recently, I was dismayed to find that what for many years had been a pretty garden suburb had been turned into streets of anonymous boarding houses with parking forecourts. Many front gardens had been paved over to form car-ports, where the latest car registration plates were the focus of display. What future for Britain in bloom, now that Acacia Avenue has turned into Daewoo Drive?
While London’s domestic gardens take up only a fifth of the capital’s surface area, they contain nearly 70 per cent of the city’s 5.5m trees and provide more habitat for wildlife than public recreation grounds and parks. The loss of trees in private gardens not only affects birdlife, but impairs air quality too. Chopping down trees reduces shade, which in turn impacts on micro-climates. The difference in temperature between standing on a street and sitting in a park or garden can be as much as ten degrees. Trees also act as a highly efficient means of circulating rainwater, while the run-off from hard-surfaced gardens seriously increases the risk of flooding.
The baleful effects of this enthusiasm for DIY car parks are not just environmental. The ornamental front garden was one of the great achievements of Victorian and 20th-century British townscape, producing a poetics of suburban life which can still be felt in some streets on a balmy summer evening. While back gardens were used for everything from growing herbs and vegetables, planting fruit trees, hanging out washing, building sheds, repairing bikes and sunbathing, front gardens represented the public face of the household within. There was often a competitive edge to the endless planting, weeding, mowing and trimming of front gardens, which in recent years has been supplanted by the equally competitive display of Christmas illuminations.
Suburban gardens also acted as a stage set for the flora and topographies of empire. The passion for monkey-trees in the early Victorian era later gave way to a devotion to magnolias, then rose gardens. The wave of interest in alpinism produced thousands of rock gardens, some of which were created out of slag collected from the local gasworks, or the rubble from broken-up bomb shelters, as I remember from my Leytonstone childhood.
The removal of front gardens signals a rejection of the public domain…