The world’s great urban green spaces are also some of the most famous landmarks found in a city. Central Park, Hyde Park, and Le Tuileries are rooted in the particular sensibilities of their residents, revealing much about how each city lives. In New York, skateboarders and cyclists zip down the length of shaded paths; in London, the historical Royal Parks also serve as a venue for contemporary art installations. In Paris, seeing and being seen is perhaps most iconic in the grand gardens with their formal lines, topiary, and statuary. Often these places exist as islands of calm among the rest of the urban chaos, where one can always retreat for a much-needed horticultural fix.
Outside the leafy confines of a city’s parks are the smaller but no less beautiful “wild” spaces created by residents—a patch of green for all to enjoy. This crossover of the personal into the public is, in fact, vital to a thriving urban environment. What we do with those spaces, whether growing plants in a window box or tending to our gardens, is not just for our own benefit.
Here in London, we are lucky to live in what is a very green city. Many houses have a front garden, which change dramatically from season to season, adding interest and beauty to an everyday commute. Seeing signs of spring sprout up after a long winter, the cherry trees flowering and the wisteria blossoming, transforms the observer as much as the plant life. In the autumn, when the leaves change and a multitude of berries appear, strolling down a city street can feel like taking a woodland walk.
However, in recent years there has been a significant rise in the number of people choosing to pave over their gardens, whether to create extra parking space or simply to reduce the level of maintenance. Accumulatively, 12 square miles of front gardens have been lost under paving—the equivalent of 22 Hyde Parks! There are, of course, implications beyond the loss of a beautiful green oasis. Paving over what was once porous ground means that rain water can no longer pass through the soil; instead, it becomes surface run-off, adding stress to an already fragile wastewater system and often leading to flash floods.
In places where front gardens aren’t so common, plants sprout up from on high. While exploring Milan or Paris, for example, I’m always amazed by what appear to be hanging gardens, as people cover their balconies with as much greenery as possible. Vines and trailing plants climb up and drip down residential buildings, blurring the boundaries of natural and manmade worlds (not to mention the “secret garden” courtyards hidden behind many of these homes). This brings joy to both the inhabitants of these apartments and the people down at street level, creating a wild and thriving place to live. As anyone who has sought out the shade of a tree on a hot day can attest, green spaces provide a cooling effect in our cities, too. They reduce the “heat island” effect in built-up areas, where brick and concrete absorb the heat, usually driving most people to click on the air conditioner.
When you start to think about how a plant you grow outside might brighten the day of a stranger passing by, gardening becomes the very source of a healthy urban ecosystem. Some options to consider, if you want to contribute to the greening of your space and, in extension, city: Consider planting climbers, either in pots or in the ground, if you are at ground level. They have an insulating effect on a building and provide a place for birds to nest. Another idea is to grow plants that are a good source of pollen for bees and insects—including buddleja, borage, and salvias, to name just a few. Most herbs also produce pollinating flowers, creating nourishment for you and the bugs and bees buzzing outside your window. Think about volunteering at an urban garden or lend a hand nurturing the trees planted on many city streets. And next time you’re out on a walk, appreciate the wild beauty others have cultivated for all to enjoy.