Growing Places: Sustainable design at the Chelsea Flower Show

spring flowersby James Carson

Throughout this week, the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show has been in full bloom, and a number of exhibits are showcasing good examples of sustainable design.

One of this year’s gold medal-winning gardens is from debutant Hugo Bugg, whose waterscape garden shows how water management features that occur in the natural world can be replicated in bold and innovative ways. Mimicking the watershed, water is directed through the garden at different gradients and speeds. Bugg believes that Chelsea is the perfect platform to highlight water conservation and present solutions:

“Visitors will understand the concept of storm water management when they see the garden, because they will see how the water is being slowed and stored through the garden and they’ll see water levels dropping as they go through as that reflects water infiltrating into the ground.”

Another Chelsea exhibit, presented by the National Union of Students highlights the Student Eats programme, which has helped students from 23 UK universities to grow low-carbon, organic food on campus.

The Royal Horticultural Society itself is a keen advocate of sustainability, and its researchers at the University of Reading are looking into the role of plants in reducing urban temperatures, insulating buildings and enhancing green roofs.

In 2011, the RHS published a report on the potential impact of the domestic garden on urban quality of life. Among the benefits of urban greening highlighted by the report were:

  • Improved air cooling, making it more bearable in towns and cities in hot weather
  • Insulation of buildings by garden vegetation
  • Improved air quality
  • Storm water mitigation which helps to reduce garden flooding
  • A source of habitats for wildlife
  • Improved health for plants and people who garden more

In recent years, an alternative to the more conventional approach to gardening taken by the RHS has been promoted by urban guerrilla gardeners. These are volunteers who, without permission, target neglected public and private spaces and (often unlawfully) transform the environment through planting flora.

Unsurprisingly, this can sometimes bring the volunteers into conflict with police or local authorities. In the London borough of Southwark a group of guerrilla gardeners have been tending a neglected roundabout at the busy Elephant and Castle junction since 2004. The group is now opposing a proposal to regenerate the area, including demolition of the roundabout.

The issue raises wider questions about whether there is a right approach to improving neighbourhoods, and how to reconcile developers’ claims of regeneration with their opponents’ accusations of “social cleansing”.

On the map, Chelsea and Southwark are just over 3 miles apart, but they’re providing two very different examples of how the quiet practice of gardening can make a big noise in the wider world.

Further resources (please note you must be a member of the Information Service to view these articles)

Growing opportunities, ideal for all: Sandwell and the Black Country (food growing in the community to provide health benefit)

Observing guerrillas in the wild: reinterpreting practices of urban guerrilla gardening, IN Urban Studies, Vol 51 No 6 May 2014, pp1103-1119

Can home gardens scale up into movements for social change? The role of home gardens in providing food security and community change in San Jose, California, IN Local Environment, Vol 29 Nos 1/2 Jan-Feb 2014, pp187-203

Gardening and the social engagement of older people, IN Working with Older People, Vol 15 No 3 2011, pp112-122

Understanding guerrilla gardening: an exploration of illegal cultivation in the UK

Gardening matters: urban gardens

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