The Decline of the British Front Garden
My parents still live in the house they bought when they got married in 1960. It’s three bedrooms, end of terrace house in a leafy suburb, in South East London. Built in the 1930 as family homes, the street is still predominantly populated by owner occupiers; mainly couples raising families. Yet there is one change that has occurred in my life time that is very noticeable. Over the last forty years the front gardens have all but vanished to be replaced with drives and other kinds of off road parking. Out of approximately a hundred homes in the street, at present only three still have a front garden in the traditional sense. My parent’s house is one of these but this is soon to change.
My Father gave up driving soon after he retired in the late nineties. Up until then he was always content to park his car in the garage that is at the rear of his property, at the end of the back garden. There is a connecting alley way that runs parallel to the road where he lives. However, over the years, many resident found that the pre-war garages were too small to adequately accommodate contemporary vehicles and many also wished to get rid of them antiquated building materials. Thus, over time, more and more households have elected to give up their front gardens and park directly outside their front door. It should be noted that in my parent’s borough, before you build your drive, you must first apply to the local council to have the kerb dropped in the street and the pavement outside your home replaced with asphalt.
Both my parents are now in their late eighties and disabled. My Father had two strokes last year and is dependent on twice daily visits by the district nurse. Health visitors, dieticians and physiotherapists regularly call, so after a family discussion it was decided to finally make the change and after fifty-seven years give up the front garden. Furthermore, to accommodate the dropped kerb, a tree on the grass verge will have to be removed. Technically, the road in which my parents live is an Avenue so it is allegedly supposed to be lined with trees. However, over the years many trees have gone as well as front gardens. Both these situations do not sit well with me. I appreciate the realities of modern life and the nature of change but the decline of the British front garden has wider effects, other than just encouraging nostalgia.
Over the past decade, the number of front gardens in the UK with gravel or paving instead of grass has tripled, now making up a quarter of all houses, a survey for the Royal Horticultural Society shows. This change is a contributory factor to the increase in flash flooding seen in urban areas. Furthermore, the loss of vegetation and grass from our streets also impacts upon city temperatures. The artificial surfaces absorb and retain or reflect the heat, contributing to the Urban Heat Island Effect. There is also a tangible impact upon wildlife and wider biodiversity. Certain species can no longer find a viable habitat with so many gardens gone.
Then of course there is the social and community aspect of this matter to consider. During the seventies, my Mother spent many an hour maintaining the front garden, mainly for pleasure, as she’s always been a keen amateur gardener. However, she also ensured that the lawn and flower beds were in good order due to the prevailing social conventions of the time. I won’t arbitrarily write these cultural habits off as bad things. The street was a lot more pleasing to the eye due to residents Rose bushes and fruit trees. It wasn’t unusual for passers-by to stop and exchange pleasantries regarding a well moved lawn. All these incidental conversations and good will were beneficial for the local community. It brought people together and forged bonds between neighbours.
However, time and tide waits for no one and the proliferation of cars over the last forty years has forced change. There are currently more than 38 million licensed vehicles on the UK's roads. Fifty years ago, there were only 11 million. Estate agents will often cite that off-street parking is a selling point to potential buyers. In areas where parking is at a premium, it can add substantial value to a property. Plus, people need a storage area for their waste and recycling bins. This is especially true in our Borough as we have two wheelie bins and three recycling boxes to accommodate. Gardening has also been side-lined as leisure activity for many household now, due to increased working hours and alternative, less arduous pastimes. So, we simply have to endure the decline of the British front garden because, there doesn’t seem to be any practical means to bring them back. It’s a shame in many respects because I think the suburbs have lost more than just character as a result.