Bowles & Wyer

Quiet Revolution

Written by John Wyer

CEO, John Wyer courts controversy to ask: do we have too many gardens?

It seems pretty mad to be arguing that we should have fewer gardens. But let’s unpack this. If you ask someone to picture the quintessential English home (and I use English rather than British deliberately here), it will more than likely be a traditional-looking house dating from the mid-20th century, detached or semi-detached, sitting on a medium-sized plot.

The garden would have a lawn, flower borders, a patio and perhaps a shed. Many of us grew up in houses like these. The style of these houses, often brick or render with half-timbering on the front, date back to watered-down versions of Arts & Crafts houses from the late 19th and early 20th century. These Arts & Crafts houses themselves hark back to some nostalgically imagined earlier time of historic England. The gardens are likewise nostalgic. Lawns were expensive luxury until the invention of the lawnmower, which democratised them. Even a hundred years ago, they still had the whiff of croquet and afternoon tea about them.

Going back a century or so earlier (ignoring, for the moment, country houses), there were really only two types of dwelling in cities: ‘back to backs’ which had virtually no gardens, and large townhouses – which also had small or non-existent gardens. Examples of the latter (such as those in Bristol, Bath, Edinburgh or London) often benefitted from leafy garden squares – communal spaces that all residents were able to use.

The key to what changed in the early 20th century was the twin rise of a property-owning middle-class and the garden-city movement. This seems to me to have been a sort of fork in the road, a time when England made a particular choice in house and garden design. The Edwardian style of garden design was to dominate for at least a further 70 years, and still has strong resonance today.

The trouble is that land is limited in this country. In our nostalgic fog, we also idolise a version of bucolic England, all hedgerows, small fields and patches of woodland – essentially the landscape of the south and Midlands. In order to protect this, the Town and Country Planning Act (1947) established greenbelt around the major cities and towns, which prevented further expansion (many of the landscapes of the north and west were protected by national parks).

As building land became scarce, house prices rose, houses and gardens shrunk, until we arrived at where we are today – tiny pitched-roofed brick boxes with miniscule gardens. Much as we valued them during lockdown, these gardens are too small to do much more than light a barbecue; too small even to kick a ball around. It’s a patio and a postage stamp of a lawn – which means you then have to have a shed in which to keep the lawnmower.

In the cities, something else has been happening. We are moving back towards communal gardens. The point blocks of the 1970s surrounded by a small sea of litter-strewn grass and dead trees are being replaced with apartment blocks and communal squares. For the moment, these are expensive and sale-only. But this is also changing. Developers are moving into the rental-only market, and large landowners like Peabody are busy buying up late-century social housing and investing billions in it, including in the landscape. So fewer, larger gardens is definitely the way things are going in cities, which actually creates really interesting opportunities for garden designers and landscape architects.

But what of the countryside? Well, the ‘dream’ is still alive and kicking there. Even the local authorities seem confused. A very few years ago, we were involved with an enlightened landowner and architect on a rural housing project. We met the local authorities (central Government recommended) densities with a sensitive scheme of live-work units, low rise apartments, some terraces, and a few semi-detached houses. There were allotments, a small wetland area and yes, back gardens.

The local authority said that the scheme looked ‘too urban’, even though it was bang-on density. When they gave us some guide sites, it turned out what they actually wanted was boxes in little gardens. I would argue that higher density in rural areas gives more room for wildlife, more communal space and space for people to enjoy landscape. Not everyone wants a garden, especially not one that is 5m2. This doesn’t mean that most people don’t want some outside space of their own – just that the balance is shifting from private to shared spaces.

There has been a quiet revolution in urban housing and landscape design in the past 20 years. I suspect that the suburbs and eventually new developments in the countryside will move in the same direction.


[This was originally published as an article in the Garden Design Journal in September 2020 as part of the ‘Just Saying’ series.]

October 19, 2020