Thursday, 30 January 2014

Regreening the front garden...what to do about block paving. 1.

Somebody has stolen my front garden. Where once there would have been lawn, borders brimming with flowers, a functional but nonetheless charming path to the front door and a low wall with railings to the street, there is now an expanse of characterless block paving and a dropped kerb. And we’re not the only ones to have become victims to the front garden thieves  – there’s a rash of it breaking out along our road, and the word on the street is that it’s a phenomenon that could soon reach epidemic proportions across the nation.

Perhaps I overdramatise; this isn’t something that happened overnight – in fact, the block paving’s been at our address longer than we have, and the absence of the original front garden was not a sufficient obstacle to prevent us from buying the house which we chose to make our home. But this fact doesn’t prevent me from gazing with slight longing at the gardens of the few neighbours who have managed to resist the lure of a paved frontage, nor from feeling alarm at the ever increasing number of homeowners who are choosing to grub out all plant matter and cover over every inch of bare soil with paving from one boundary to the other.

You may ask, what’s the big deal? Most houses with front gardens were built at a time when levels of car ownership were significantly lower; it makes perfect sense to use this area for off-road parking and, quite apart from which, who has time to tend a garden in the front of the property as well as the rear? All of which are perfectly valid points, which would appear to suggest that paving over a front garden is an entirely logical solution to a modern day first world problem, perhaps even a socially responsible one, as we opt to park our vehicles within the bounds of our own property rather than clutter up the public highways.

So why am I getting myself so worked up about people paving over gardens? I have reservations about the trend continuing along the current trajectory, for reasons both aesthetic and environmental. Let’s deal with the effect on the environment first, something which has been thrown into sharp focus on several occasions in the UK over the last decade, most recently with the very recent weather patterns we’ve been experiencing since Christmas.

The main issue here is one of urban runoff; the more we pave over land which, left in something approximating its natural state, would safely filter, capture and direct rain water, the more we put ourselves at risk of flooding. This is a state of affairs only exacerbated by the apparently irresistible urge of house builders and planners to construct developments on floodplains. Building and planning regulations now make reference to the permeability of hard surfaces, but in practice this is little more than greenwash, and while everyone who knows about these things agrees that building Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SuDS) into our towns and cities is a great idea it has yet to become a legal requirement, with government and industry wrangling over who’s going to pay for it. Currently, the financial cost of ignoring these best practice technologies is being shouldered by the insurance trade, while the emotional cost weighs heavily on those families and business owners who become victim to the inevitable floods.

Against this background, I can’t help wince at every front garden I see being paved over.  Perhaps this reaction is caused by frustration and moral outrage at the environmental cost – that would be the noble explanation. But I think it’s at least partly because I think so much of it just looks awful.

I don’t have anything against block paving per se. I just wish it wasn’t quite so ubiquitous, and that more installations sought to add interest by incorporating a greater variation in texture, whether by using a wider palette of materials, or by including planting areas, from more traditional raised beds for flowers and or shrubs or – I don’t know – perhaps ground level gravelled areas for mediterranean type plants. Just something to break up the monotony of relentless, often deeply unlovely paving. As for the pavers themselves, it would be encouraging to think that some thought could be given to selecting materials and colours which complement those used for the house itself. I don’t think it would be too much to ask that these considerations be made statutory requirements, and that any householder or landscaper found flouting them be whipped naked through the streets as a warning to others.

As someone who has acquired a paved driveway, there’s one more niggle – the maintenance. I realise that this is a particularly personal point of view, and that the time spent looking after a proper garden in front of the house would be far greater. But keeping block paving in anything other than a frankly derelict condition (and I have tried this as an option) requires periodic pressure washing and redressing with sand, and either a frequent application of herbicide or a several hours of shuffling along on your knees pulling weeds and grass out of the cracks. None of these are activities which I find particularly nourishing to the soul. And it’s so – well...not-green – that it almost makes me weep. 2014 then, I have decided, is the year in which Something Must Be Done.

In a series of posts of which this is the first, I don’t plan to make a case for or against paving front gardens, nor am I intending to explore the countless different options available to a householder considering a redesign of this space. What I will be doing – because this is the position in which I find myself – is considering ways in which to bring some green life back to what in many cases is an unwelcoming, bleak and sterile area.

And so, approaching the front door and looking with some dismay at our drive, I find we’re faced with the following options:

1. Clean it up.

2. Dig it up.

And then, possibly a third:

3. Something else.

It’s that ‘something else’ that we’ll be deciding upon over the course of the year. I’ll let you know how it’s progressing in the next post.

Further reading

Guidance on the permeable surfacing of front gardens, Environment Agency, 2008

Spaced out: perspectives on parking policy, RAC Foundation, July 2012
A report including statistics on domestic parking space across the UK

SUDS, What’s it all about?, last accessed 28 January 2013

UK’s front gardens paved over for parking spaces, The Guardian, 18 July 2012

43 reasons not to pave, Ealing Front Garden Project, last accessed 28 January 2013

New planning regulations for front garden paving, Healthy Life Essex, last accessed 28 January 2013
A good general summary of the issues, legislation and technologies available, with some design ideas for front garden space.

Sustainable Urban Drainage System (SuDS) rules: delays could leave developers high and dry, Mondaq, December 2013