A growing trend: the rise of shared green space

Urban gardens are disappearing fast, leaving millions of us without access to nature. But are new developers offering horticultural hope for city dwellers?

Jonathan Christie
Wednesday 16 September 2009 00:00 BST

Despite the non-arrival of the promised ‘hot and long barbeque summer’, thoughts of alfresco dining, a spot of planting and absorbing some vitamin D are hard to suppress. But for many, enjoying these simple pleasures is a distant dream, as new government figures show the urban garden is disappearing.

A recent report, from the Department for the Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs, shows adecline in private gardens will leave over 2 million British homes without a garden by 2010, with that figure climbing to 2.6 million by 2020. As a result biodiversity, social and even obesity problems are predicted to rise in a nation that is estimated to be the most over-crowded in Europe.

A glut of apartments built during the property boom – 50 per cent of all new homes built last year were flats – has long been known as one of the causes of the housing slump, but it’s only now becoming clear how problematic they have been in reducing peoples access to gardens.

The demise of the private garden hits urban dwellers hardest, especially those in flats, regeneration areas and the densely packed inner cities. With the onward march of new single-occupancy households, the most your average city buyer can expect from a pad nowadays is some kind of ‘communal’ space. But are the planners, developers and architects making the most of these space-saving shared spaces and giving the residents what they want – and what they need?

The communal garden is not a modern idea. Gated garden squares have been popular for centuries and are still a feature of older urban areas such as Berkeley Square in London or Charlotte Square in Edinburgh offering shady trees, neat lawns and planted borders away from the bustle. Coleherne Court near Kensington has a classic shared garden, boxed in on all sides by purpose built mansion blocks. Princess Diana lived here between 1979 and 1981 and the large, established grounds more than make up for any lack of private garden.

Today, clever marketing of new developments generally includes slick artist impressions of the gardens and grounds. They’re aimed at seducing buyers but the end result rarely lives up to the brochure’s promises. Lack of imagination and the desire to squeeze as many units onto a site as possible often results in sterile, corporate gardens that don’t invite relaxation, interaction or play.

However, things are not all bad for urban lovers of flowers and fauna. In July, Mayor Boris Johnson announced the planting of an extra 2 million trees in London by 2025 in an attempt to ‘cool’ the capital. While nationally, over 1,000 locations have been awarded a Green Flag for offering “clean, safe and welcoming places park and green spaces to spend time”. This is 200 more than 2008, indicating the quality of our free public spaces is on the up.

While on the housing front, some urban developers are finally taking an altogether more ambitious and holistic approach. For example, Urban Splash, a developer who specialize in regenration and converting disused factories, sacrificed building density for green space with its Saxton development in the East Bank area of Leeds.

Rather than a rip it up and start again, Saxton is the regeneration of two Fifties tower blocks into 410 apartments. But despite the large number of units here, Urban Splash and their architects Union North have given the bulk of the land over to green space – six acres in fact that include lawns, terraces, wild meadows and orchards as well as small allotments with sheds. Cars are exiled to fringe one-way systems and parked under green canopies, reducing their visibility from the flats.

It’s a refreshingly new take on house-selling. Developers know that green space is attractive to buyers, but often let commercial pressures force them into putting large profits above large gardens. Saxton is proof that being adventurous with outdoor space and understanding what buyers really want can help developers nurture the feel-good factor. Urban Splash have sold most of the units at Saxton, but a few one- and two-bedroomed apartments are still available priced between £118,000 to £172,000. While it has other developments with garden space in Altrincham and Salford.

Communal gardens do need upkeep though and this doesn't come free. An estate or service charge is normally leveed, based on the square footage of your property. Some residents go it alone and organise their own contractors, some even attempt the work themselves, but this is rare as any disputes can be difficult to settle without a third party. One person’s idea of a spectacular new water feature can be another's idea of hell, although most communal gardens have scope for owners to get their hands dirty. Residents meetings are the place to admit to your green-fingered habit and outline what you'll be getting up to in the shrubbery be it planting, weeding or pruning - your efforts will generally be more than appreciated.

The perfect communal garden should thrive like any other healthy community. If the private garden is shrinking, then let’s look at getting the heart and soul back into these shared urban oases.

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