The importance of gardens in Garden Cities

Andrea Van-Sittart, Head of Communities at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) on the social and economic value of plants


Ebenezer Howard set the principles for the Garden City movement over 110 years ago, recognising the role of good quality and productive green space as vital to community wellbeing, with stewardship models to ensure that they are properly looked after. But of course the safeguarding of plants, people and place are embedded in a strong economic model, a sustainable model. The principles are strikingly relevant to challenges we now face in the many new developments in our towns and cities across the UK.

We are a nation of gardeners and our gardens are filled with 400,000 cultivated plants from around the world and are the produce of centuries of trade and exploration. Today the UK has 22.5million gardens and 27million gardeners. The RHS purpose as a charity is the encouragement and improvement of the science, art and practice of horticulture. Gardens, plants and the importance of green space in Garden Cities is of course a priority for the RHS, but what that means in new and existing developments links us to the important work of the International Garden Cities Institute.

While many community and domestic gardens can seem a far cry from our flagship garden at Wisley or the temporary gardens installed at our shows across the country, all gardens are important, but particularly those in our communities and our homes. Thriving green spaces create habitats for wildlife, help cool our cities, protect against flooding and connect people to nature, as well as delivering economic value through enterprise, jobs and tourism.

The 21st century poses new challenges for plants and gardens, the need to safeguard plant health and better understand the role that plants play in our environment is something that the RHS Science team  are continually working on. But of equal importance is valuing the social and economic value of plants and gardening and their wider role in community wellbeing. We believe this must be at the heart of a modern Garden City concept, but also could be used as part of the regeneration of existing places

As a crisis looms for UK public parks, with increased austerity measures reducing funding for local authorities, the Heritage Lottery Fund reports that this will exacerbate the issue of access to, and quality of, public green space. However when Garden City Principles are applied, the capture of land value and long-term stewardship models can ensure that these important places are properly looked after in perpetuity, as is the case with Letchworth Garden City with the Heritage Foundation and in Milton Keynes by the Parks Trust. There are also exciting opportunities around the potential for green space to be productive, making a contribution to local food production, while retaining an important amenity role.

As the population grows and the community ages, there is an undoubted need for the development of new homes. This needs to be carefully planned to ensure that it will have a minimal impact on the amount of green space overall, but also so that new development does not have an absence of green space. 85% of the UK public now live in urban areas, where there are many positive attributes in terms of sustainability, but there are increasing and worrying limits on access to high quality green space. Research from RHS science highlights that hard surfaces in gardens are increasing significantly year on year[1]. The Greening Grey Britain initiative aims to highlight the importance of gardens to us all, encouraging individuals and community groups to plant in front gardens which across the nation has decreased by as much as 15% in the past 10 years. Over five million front gardens now have no plants growing in them (that’s one in three for the UK) and four and a half million front gardens (one in four) are completely paved over.  

Against this backdrop, there is an increased expectation that volunteers can and will take more responsibility for the maintenance of spaces, which again sits well with Howard’s aspirations for local community engagement. We see this daily, through the amazing 300,000 volunteers we steward through Britain in Bloom. Though people often lack expertise, time and funding for the longer term and have some dependency on funding that is unsustainable. With partners we have identified that there is a worrying decline in horticultural skills transference between generations, therefore one of our key responsibilities has to be to respond to the skills gap for horticulture which we are doing through Horticulture Matters. There is a vital need to increase understanding among a new generation of gardeners, not only of the pleasure that plants bring but also the vital role of plants in life. While the RHS currently engages over 26,000 schools through the Campaign for School Gardening, the challenge is to find new ways to make gardening relevant to young people, as both a career and for enjoyment. 

We are therefore pleased to be involved with the International Garden Cities Institute, as we feel that Garden City Principles can play a key role in helping to provide great places, with the community and gardens at their heart.