We will soon be launching our first Living Places Awards.
With front gardens in London being lost at an alarming rate, the awards will celebrate everyone who is pushing back the creeping concrete and making the capital that little bit wilder. The awards will inspire Londoners. It will show what can be achieved and what a wilder London can look like. We will collect and share great examples to guide every Londoner on how the smallest action at home, in your street, and at your workplace can make a positive difference. And even that sometimes no action at all can be immense: The idle, even feral, garden can be an awesome place for Wild Londoners!
Designed around our aims to make London a greener and more enjoyable place to live and visit, the award categories will cover the breadth of London. We'll be looking for accidental gardens, idle spaces, green balconies, lush streets and stimulating traffic islands. We’ll be searching for outside meeting rooms, green walls and growing roofs. The full list of categories will be announced later.
Covering around 24% of Greater London, gardens make an amazing contribution to London's diverse landscape. With 3.8 million front, back and side-gardens, millions of Londoners have the power to shape the capital by how they look after their personal landscapes. They are a great opportunity to enhance the health, happiness and quality of life of everyone, and at the same time help provide Wild Homes for London’s wildlife. The Living Places awards Living Gardens category will be a major contribution towards turning the tide and making London a greener, healthier and happier place for everyone.
Statistics from “London: Garden City?” (2011) by GiGL (Greenspace Information for Greater London)
What if we made where we live wilder?
If you take a walk down most suburban streets it becomes painfully clear that our front gardens are drowning under a rising tide of concrete, and that tide shows no sign of ebbing.
Our gardens make up a huge area of London’s land. When GIGL counted gardens, they found that London has 3.8 million garden plots spread across 2 million dwellings, covering a surprising 24% of Greater London. Front gardens make up 25% of all gardens by area.
Things are changing. Over the 8.5 years of their study GIGL found that the hard surfacing in London’s gardens had increased by 25% and the green cover had reduced by 12%.
The English Housing Survey (2011) showed there is great potential for almost everyone to have impact on their environment, as 84% of dwellings having some form of private space. Unfortunately, almost a third of properties (31%) now have a front plot almost totally covered with hard landscaping. This number has rapidly increased from just 21% that were mostly hard landscaping only ten year’s previous.
This change has been across the board, affecting all types of ownership including owner-occupied, private rented, local authority and housing association properties. The biggest change was seen in private rented homes, where 39% of properties now had most of the front plot hard-landscaped. Landlords want low maintenance, and regularly moving tenants have little reason to invest in the spaces around their home.
The RHS found the same issue. Their 2015 survey showed that London was the worst place in the country for paving over front gardens. Almost half of all front gardens are now paved over; a 36% increase in ten years. London also had the biggest reduction of plant cover with five times as many front gardens with no plants compared to ten years ago.
It isn't always concrete that pushes out the green. In 2014, The Buying Agents reported that 25% of the houses they bought in Fulham now had artificial grass! It’s easy to maintain and looks neat, but removes all the varied plant life that smaller Wild Londoners love to nibble and crawl through.
The Living Places Awards Living Gardens category will be a major contribution towards turning the tide and making London a greener, healthier and happier place for everyone.
The space in front of your house could be a home for 1000s of Wild Londoners. The more diverse the plants and environments in your front garden, the greater the number you would find living there. However, when concrete takes over, all this life disappears. Our Living Places Awards aim to show how your front garden can serve your needs, while at the same time being a thriving and connected living space.
Our gardens are crazy biodiverse places. They contain a huge range of plants from all around the world jostling for dominance. There is no natural habitat in the world with such a densely situated diversity of plants. In fact, in one survey of species, Jennifer Owen calculated that there can be up to 3500 species of plant per hectare in a UK garden, 25 times more than the 135 species per hectare in an African rain-forest!
So why is this?
Diversity multiplies - Since plants are the basis of food for wildlife, and most plant eaters prefer to nibble on a range of plants, high diversity of plants in a garden leads to high animal diversity. And with that animal diversity comes a layering effect: A “food web” where a plant supports an animal, which in turn is eaten by another animal that is hunted by another. Ken Thompson provides the example of aphids being eaten by ladybird larvae, themselves hunted by those alien-looking ichneumon wasps. But aphids also exude a honeydew which becomes the food for others. And at the top of this complex web sit all our favourites: such as garden birds and hedgehogs.
Change attracts – Gardens are regularly disturbed, shifted around, and dug over with new plants arriving and leaving. This constant small change is attractive to many species, and ensures that our gardens do not regress into a monoculture where just one plant grows and only its specific residents can survive.
Edges are social - Then there is the mix of environments in a garden; the transitions from shade to light, from dry to wet, from short and tidy to long and scruffy. Such edge zones provide homes for species that want to live on either side of the divide in effect “doubling up” and providing a home to two different groups who seemingly intermingle and socialize!
For more on this fascinating topic, we recommend this very interesting piece on the biodiversity of gardens by Ken Thompson and Steve Head of the Wildlife Gardening Forum. The book “No Nettles Required” by Ken Thompson is another good read on this topic.
Front gardens are part of the matrix
The impact of concreting over a front garden is not only restricted to that home.
Front gardens are part of the matrix of green space within our city. You may even call them a London-wide nature reserve.
Breaching the matrix - Many studies  have found the negative impact of sealed surfaces such as concrete and paving on the richness of native species, but studies have also found  that continuity of greenery in the surrounding area is critical to the diversity within one particular garden. When concrete moves into a front garden, it introduces a breach into that matrix, leaving Wild Londoners isolated on gradually reducing islands of green. Each island becoming less and less attractive to life.
It’s not just the paving - When front gardens are paved, then boundary hedges and climbing plants are usually removed at the same time. Out in the street, to make room for pavement cross-overs grass verges may be reduced and street trees removed. This results in even bigger reductions in space for Wild Londoners, including birds such as the iconic 'Cockney' Sparrow who want to use those climbing plants and hedges, and would now find themselves homeless.
While a planted front garden would likely support less wildlife than the more connected and varied back garden, there is nothing to stop there being several hundred different species living in such a garden. Studies  have demonstrated that the garden doesn’t even have to be that packed full of plant species. The simple provision of soil and plants, shelter, and of connections with neighbouring gardens and green spaces appear to be just as important.
The added extras - A front garden pond and bug hotel would help attract even more life. A small tree would make even more difference. In such a front garden Wild Londoners would be found everywhere: amongst the plants, on the edges and in the cracks, living their quiet but busy lives and bringing a welcome buzz to the home and street beyond.
Next Time: The value of Front Gardens to Londoners.
The average front garden plot size in London is estimated to be 56 square metres, though that varies greatly depending on the borough: from 30 square metres in City of Westminster to 180 square metres in Bromley .
 GiGL “London: Garden City?” http://www.gigl.org.uk/partnershipcasestudy/garden-research/
 Butterflies (Blair and Launer 1997; Hardy and Dennis 1999); birds in urban parks (Jokimaki 1999); lizards in residential areas (Germaine and Wakeling 2001); Ground beetles in urban London (Davis 1978)
 Urban domestic gardens (VI): environmental correlates of invertebrate species richness Richard M. Smith, Philip H. Warren, Ken Thompson and Kevin J. Gaston.