02 Apr 2015

Concrete jungle

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It’s easy to think that environmental change and destruction is something that only happens in pristine green environments such as rainforests. But while it is hard for UK homeowners to directly help protect these very valuable places, there is an environment under threat that is literally on many people’s doorsteps: the garden.

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The front garden helps to protect homeowners from a range of environmental problems. However, the most accurate studies show that 64% of the total area of front gardens in the UK have now been paved over. This amounts to 3.5 million front gardens being lost in the last 15 years.

Front gardens provide a number of benefits. Firstly, they work as a flood defence. Vegetation, whether trees, lawns or borders, soak up rainwater and so help to prevent localised ‘flash’ flooding. About 25% of all the land in our towns and cities is gardens, which significantly reduces the pressure on drainage during periods of heavy rain. Lower density housing with gardens has three-fold less storm water run-off than higher density stock.

Secondly, plants cool the air by releasing moisture and providing shade, combating dangerous heat waves. The effects are localised so homeowners get the benefits in summer. It has been estimated that vegetation used in conjunction with building design provides a 30% energy saving on air conditioning. What’s more, trees, hedges or shrubs insulate our houses, acting as ‘wind breaks’ by slowing buffeting winds and so save on heating costs.

Front gardens also clean the air we breathe. Plants can improve air quality. Particle pollution – e.g. dust from wear on pavements and vehicles, metals from vehicle exhaust fumes from burning fuel – are trapped by rough leaves and stems and absorbed by plants. Hedges of Thuja and beech are good choices.

Paving over one garden is not really a problem, but collectively the paving over of gardens is having a real impact. For example in Leeds, over a 33-year period there was a 13% increase in paved surfaces – 75% of which was due to paving of residential front gardens; this was linked to more flooding in the area. Meanwhile, in London, 47% of garden hard surfacing is found in front gardens, yet they only form 25% of total garden space.

Making the most of space
Paving wall to wall is not obligatory, despite a recent survey showing that a quarter of homeowners believe they can’t park and have plants in their front garden. Even where parking is tight, there is usually room for wall climbers in corners that can’t be parked in but can be planted, and room for boundary hedges and even well-placed trees.

In England, homeowners can’t just pave over their gardens with non-permeable materials such as block paving and tarmac. Since 2008 any new or replacement drive larger than five square metres must be constructed of permeable materials such as permeable block paving or gravel, otherwise planning permission is required. This is largely to prevent localised flooding.

Similar measures apply in Scotland. These, however, apply to paving of any size between the house and any street, not just front gardens. Less strict rules apply in Wales where either permeable paving must be used or non-permeable laid so it drains onto permeable surfaces within the garden.

Concrete epidemic
Studies have proven that the front garden isn’t the only private greenery under threat, a problem especially apparent within urban areas.

Gardens make up much of London’s green space; in fact nearly a quarter of Greater London is comprised of private, domestic garden land. They are valuable for both people and wildlife because they provide a significant amount of London’s open space and habitat. Climate change means that the extent and quality of gardens may become increasingly important as they also have a role to play in keeping the city cool and in preventing surface-water flooding.

A partnership project between Greenspace Information for Greater London (GiGL), London Wildlife Trust and the Greater London Authority revealed that vegetated land in the captial’s gardens has been lost at a rate of two and a half Hyde Parks per year, driven by garden design and maintenance choices.

The study revealed that the area of vegetated land present in 1998 had dropped 12% by 2008. The amount of hard surfacing in London’s gardens increased by 26% and the amount of lawn decreased by 16%. The research recommends that it’s never been more important for Londoners to understand the value of their garden. A well-managed network of gardens stretching across the capital would provide essential wildlife habitat and offer important environmental benefits in response to climate change.

Health benefits
Whist reducing green space in our gardens has a negative impact on both wildlife and climate change, a loss of garden space might also detriment our own health.

A UK doctor and a leading Swedish scientist have made the case for gardening and horticulture to be of such importance for our health that it should be available on the NHS. Speakers Dr William Bird and Dr Matilda van den Bosch spoke to an audience during the fourth annual Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) John MacLeod Lecture about the interactions between nature and human health and how gardening may contribute to increased wellbeing and quality of life.

Speaking about the impact horticulture and gardening can have on health, Dr Van Den Bosch says: “Apart from preventing diseases, horticulture and horticulture therapy are used to treat many conditions of ill-health, including cancer rehabilitation, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders and various behavioural disturbances.

“There is now enough evidence to include gardening and nature in the health care agenda. The key point is that gardening, plants and horticultural activities are excellent tools for creating a healthier society where the costs of health care and human suffering can be substantially reduced.”

Time for change
Whether you lead a green-fingered lifestyle or not, the individual elements discussed within this article add up to a persuasive argument to incorporate as much green space in your home-building project as possible. It has never been so important to preserve British wildlife, prevent climate change and protect our planet, but also to use our surroundings to protect our own health and that of generations to come.

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