Whilst I don’t condone sneering, it’s hard not to join the sneering classes when it comes to the tabloid media and their readers’ obsession with celebrity, and when it comes to designer label-wearing chavs, then try holding me back, but you won’t find me joining in with the Titchmarsh and Gardeners World baiting that has become prevalent. It may be fashionable to knock gardening and to champion all things urban and for designers of computer games to win design awards whilst garden designers are linked to knitters of toilet roll holders, but gardens and gardening are part of our heritage and most importantly they positively affect the health of the nation.
Yet if current trends towards the majority of properties being built as apartments and without access to a garden continues, then gardening will become a luxury for the few that can afford a house with a garden, consigning those with lower disposable incomes to a life indoors watching some brain-rotting soap or coma-inducing reality TV programme. Is it any wonder that Britain has such high levels of clinical obesity (8.5 million and counting) when we are designing environments that encourage a sedentary life? Is it any wonder that Britain tops Europe’s antisocial behaviour and youth crime charts (16.8% of the prison population are under 18 in the UK) when we are providing housing developments devoid of decent play spaces? All that pent up energy released in Yates Wine Lodge and Wetherspoons on a Saturday night is asking for trouble.
When I first started criticising the housing industry in the late 90’s I was having a go at the ugly identikit two-story housing that was creating permanent blots up and down the country and ignoring all the principles of community infrastructure. However, much stronger voices were calling for change, change in terms of higher densities to cater for housing shortages and higher densities to protect open space. There can be little doubt that these needed and need addressing but the resulting ‘solution’ that is being provided, three story townhouses without private gardens , without communal or civic space and still without the building blocks of a successful community (shops, schools , public transport) and surrounded by a sea of tarmac is leading us a dangerous, non-garden path .
In the rush for the European densities espoused by Richard Rogers and The Urban Taskforce, two erstwhile enemies, housebuilders and planners, have had legislation presented to them that has allowed them to have a common goal: high density. But rather than looking at how our European neighbours achieve their eminently liveable, high density environments, an under-resourced planning system has allowed housebuilders to simply build higher and closer together, a recipe for high profits but bloody awful housing estates.
Many of those that promote a ‘European’ style of living do actually ‘live the dream’. They live in high density blocks without communal gardens but they are likely to have concierges, secure parking, gyms and swimming pools, views over The Thames from the timber decked roof garden, a guaranteed table at a local Conran restaurant and weekend retreat with a garden – all perks that a first time buyer hasn’t got access to in their unsustainable developments in Stockport, Portsmouth and St Helens.
It doesn’t take a scholar of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept developed in the 19th century to tell us that we are getting things wrong and that we should look at why his Garden Cities such as Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City have such enduring appeal for their residents. The house-buying public themselves are telling us. From the research carried out by CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), The Housing Audit: Assessing the Design Quality of New Homes, through that carried out by planning guru Peter Hall to In House research’s ‘Living with PPG3’ there is a clear message – the vast majority of us want a garden, or at least access to outdoor space where we can have a little privacy.
Looking back at the environments that my wife and design partner were brought up in in North East Lancashire it’s not hard to spot a solution. My family’s first home in Blackburn was in a tower block, Queens Park Flats, we didn’t have a private garden but I had access to a wonderfully landscaped park that surrounded the tower blocks. My memories are of playing footy, cricket and ‘cardboardin’ ’ down steep man-made mini hills. Meanwhile my wife’s family’s workers terrace in Padiham had a tiny back yard that opened on to the communal “reccy” where today the community still play, celebrate birthdays and sunbathe on leap years when it’s hot!
When our company was invited by George Wimpey to design the kind of environments that I had been calling for in my press mouthings we toured the world and found dozens of well-designed, high-density housing developments from Kronsberg in Germany, to Malmo in Sweden, to Leidsche Rijn in Holland, to Perth in Australia .Are we so different in the UK that we can’t live like our European neighbours? Can’t we enjoy small back gardens with gates that can be left open onto communal gardens with the opportunity to use a communal barbeque or even take part in a bit of communal veg growing? Can we survive by squeezing our cars into tight spaces? Can we survive without drives for our cars in front of our houses releasing space for streets to walk, cycle and play?
Not everyone can and there is the danger with communal gardens that some anti social sods will attempt to ruin it for others. But just because not everyone can, it shouldn’t mean that we give in to the lowest common denominator and let the fear of the worst scenario prevent us from allowing us access to green spaces.and to have the ability to enjoy social interaction.
I know that I and the generation coming up behind my age group are part of new movement that is more caring, more understanding, less greedy and more in touch with a new environmental dynamic. We are not hippies, we realise that parts of society has slipped dangerously and but are not prepared to lie down and just accept that there isn’t a way back to civility… If it means creating parts of developments that cater for us likeminded people then so be it. If it means that urban designers who argue that it has been tried before and failed should be ignored then so be it. There has to be an acceptance that we are not all the same and that there is a new dynamic.
If the Germans, and Scandinavians can do it then so can we. A development I have been working on, The Staiths South Bank in Gateshead is proving that landscape and shared open space can sell houses, create land values and most importantly make a place a popular place to live (See The Power of The Barbeque ..published by The Arts Council Nov 2006).
Gardens, communal space, the ability to get outside are more than part of Britain’s heritage, they are part of our human right and we must fight a planning system and housebuilding industry when it fails to deliver. And you know the best way to fight? Sign up to your local planning committees and don’t open your wallets until something better is out there.