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Giles Coren: ‘Why do they want to sit in the front rooms and stare at their cars?’

Posted at 10:00 am, June 2, 2015 in Fun London

Giles Coren mourns the loss of the London front garden.

Think of the view from your front door. Is it of trees? Is it of shrubs and grass and twittering birdies and roses with fat green buds, just waiting to pop?

It is? Why, forgive me, your Majesty, I didn’t know you were a Time Out reader. But for those of you who are not the Queen, I’ll wager the answer is ‘no’. I’ll bet your view is of a car, and a low wall and concrete, a few weeds, and then on the other side of the road, a mirror image of the same thing: wall, concrete, car.

Well, you’re not alone. According to a report by the Royal Horticultural Society, the number of front gardens in Britain that are entirely paved, concreted or gravelled has tripled from 8 percent in 2005 to 24 percent today. That’s 4.5 million front gardens completely vanished. Plus another 7.2 million that have been ‘mostly’ covered.

The problem is worst in London, of course, which from a city of lovely green suburbs as recently as ten years ago, has gone grey overnight. It’s partly to do with selfish bastard greedy homeowners wanting free and easy parking spaces and partly to do with a general lazy low-maintenance attitude to gardens: decking out the back, concrete out the front for the 4×4. Lovely.

Except it is not lovely. It’s ugly, antisocial and environmentally catastrophic.

I remember the rot beginning to set in back in the 1980s in the leafy Cricklewood street I grew up on. After turning off the dismal upper reaches of the Finchley Road, you crested a hill and then looked down at a wide avenue of beautiful, heavily planted gardens, sprinklers on lawns, trees in leaf, dahlias shimmering. But then aspirations changed, and the tarmac lorries started to arrive. The trees were ripped out and pulped, the shrubs exhumed and an asphalt carriage drive laid down so that two saloon cars and a Fiat for the nanny could be parked right outside.

‘Why do they want to sit in the front room and stare at their cars?’ my dad used to weep as another garden bit the dust. ‘That was a nice house. Now it looks like a Mercedes showroom. This will be the end of the suburbs.’

He didn’t know how right he was. I drove down our old street the other day and it looks like the fifth runway at Heathrow. It’s a treeless strip where cars live and people are immaterial.

And it’s not just about aesthetics. The increase in ‘hard landscaping’ has reduced natural rainwater absorption, increased the risk of flooding and is calamitous for wildlife: the loss of bushes and hedges has led to a 30 percent decrease in hedgehog numbers since 2003 and 90 percent since the 1950s. The great London hedgehog herself is now almost extinct. We should be planting hedges and cutting holes in fences to allow the little fellows proper rooming space (experts say), not flattening them under rollers and two feet of hardcore.

Bees, which used to abound among the crazily diverse flora of London, are dying out. So are the insects that lived in compost heaps and the birds that fed on them. Seen a cockney sparrow lately? Green London is being murdered by vested interests. Beyond the yards and gardens, our Royal Parks and council-controlled landscapes are being turned over to low-maintenance arrangements and profit-making activities.

Battersea Park loses grass and plants to a racing car track. Kew Gardens sheds staff in response to funding cutbacks. The verdant spaces, great and small, which once set this city apart from dusty crapholes like Paris and New York are dying before our eyes.

And what do we get in return? The Thames effing Garden Bridge. A vanity project that will cost the public upwards of £30 million, spoil the last decent view of St Paul’s, and be dead within a decade because it’s just not sustainable planting trees on imported topsoil over concrete.

They paved paradise, my friends, and put up a, well, lots of little parking lots. And some race tracks. And a stupid bridge.

Make like a tree? Tweet him @gilescorenRead more of Giles Coren’s columns

Find out more about the Garden Bridge here.

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