Despite an unbelievable cold (no Mann flu this) I had a lovely day yesterday at the Natural History Museum to talk about the curse of the shed. They were hosting a meeting of the Wildlife Gardening Forum. The museum is a great venue; the gardens are fab and the butterfly house lovely.
I'm not sure what the forum's raison d'etre is, to be honest, but if it's about meeting nice like minded people and networking then it works very well for me. It's something to do with Natural England, who have published its manifesto on their website. Anyway, all sorts of mostly NGO folk, mostly connected to Wildlife Trusts.
There was much hand wringing at an excellent presentation by Chloe Smith from the London Wildlife Trust on her report, just released, on London's private gardens. These 3.8 million plots apparently constitute 24% of the area of Greater London, and they are disappearing. More accurately, they're turning colour from green to grey. Development has only accounted for a small amount of the loss of green vegetation from 1998-9 to 2006-8; by far the biggest problem has been the increase in hard surfacing (+26%) and garden buildings (+56%), which have contributed to make a loss of 12% of the vegetation, or 2.5 Hyde Parks each year. The report attributes this degreening to changes to garden design and management. Front gardens have been lost to parking, but the increase in hard landscaping is nearly as pronounced for back gardens.
This struck many of yesterday's attendees as being as puzzling as well as depressing, which seems naive. In that well worn cliche,
it's the economy, stupid.
What would be happening, I wonder, if the margins on perennial plants at garden centres and home improvement chains were double what they could make on a shed (and all the power tools, barbeques, strimmers, etc. they contain) and decking? What would designers be promoting then? Hard surfacing and "outdoor leisure pursuits" are commercial no-brainers - and the less sustainable the better. As any green roofer will tell you, this has potentially ugly implications for water run-off and the heat island effect, quite apart from the hit to wildlife.
How to reverse this decline? You can legislate - since 2008 you need planning permission to pave your front garden, for example - but this will only reduce the rate of decline in green vegetation. You can make people feel guilty - but that won't last and, anyway, what's the point? We have to change people's aesthetic, and "we" means folk like me and the Wildlife Gardening Forum getting out there and engaging designers, landscapers, and other opinion formers in the business. Despite the best efforts of people like Nigel Dunnett, we're not yet getting the message across.
I'm currently raising my first round of funding for the business, and the majority of what we raise will be going towards exactly this. It will be expensive, difficult and time consuming but if we can just achieve something it will be more than worthwhile. We might even be able to make it commercial!