Covering up London’s gardens
FOR the last six months the house opposite mine has been in the process of ‘renovation’. This means that, apart from its Victorian facade, every aspect has been ‘modernised’ into a state of gleaming sterility.
The finishing touches are being done now. The back garden is being concreted and the front garden covered with what looks like black bathroom tiles. Not an inch of ground has been left visible, let alone a hedge — indeed that was the first thing to go when the builders moved in. The developer is strolling about looking satisfied and the estate agent is in tow composing the brochure. But what he will doubtless describe as “finished to exacting standards”, I prefer to describe as another nail in the coffin of London’s environment.
The London streets I grew up in were very different from the sterile places they are fast becoming. The housing stock certainly needed improving, but the environment was a lot healthier. Then, most terraced houses had hedges — often home to groups of noisy sparrows — while extensive planting of even the smallest front gardens softened the look of streets, making them green corridors.
Now the tiles are going down faster than mahjong pieces and London’s greenery is being replaced by hard surfaces and metal fences. These new ‘easily managed amenity spaces’ banish all signs of nature, except perhaps a lonely bay tree in a pot standing guard over a row of dustbins.
This transformation isn’t just ugly, it has real environmental consequences. Last week it was revealed that British moths are in “calamitous decline” in the south, mainly due to urbanisation and loss of habitat. Simultaneously, the House of Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee criticised the government for not doing enough to prevent flooding caused by surface water, including the failure to introduce measures like stopping people laying impermeable surfaces in back gardens and businesses.
A recent report, London: Garden City?, by the London Wildlife Trust compared aerial photographs from 1998-99 and 2006-07, showing that in those eight years, 3,000 hectares of private domestic gardens was concreted or decked — the equivalent of losing two and a half Hyde Parks a year. It’s the suburban equivalent of the destruction of the rainforest. “The loss was much more dramatic than we had imagined,” says Matthew Frith, deputy chief executive of London Wildlife Trust. “Trees have disappeared, lawns had been knocked back by decking or lost under sheds, and paving is taking over.” Neglected by planning regulations, this move away from traditional gardens is creating a huge change in London’s landscape and ecology.
The writer is a professor of journalism at Roehampton University.
— The Guardian, London