Greening the Grey – Vegetating front gardens for improved well-being

Lauriane Suyin Chalmin-Pui

Today, one in three front gardens in the UK have no plants growing in them. This is three times less than 10 years ago. “So what?” you may think. Other than increasing the risk of flooding in residential areas and contributing to the urban heat island effect, I think that front gardens have other benefits. It’s almost universally accepted that nature has therapeutic values, that gardens are a place for relaxation, physical activity, personal development, and healing. Therefore, there must be a strong possibility that front gardens are good for you too. Front gardens are an endangered species, paved over to be replaced by off-road parking. Personally, I want to better understand how residents and passers-by engage with vegetated front gardens. This can then give value to the socio-cultural benefits that we derive from these small, contained areas that nonetheless play a large role both in separating our homes from the outside and in bridging the private and the public realms.

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Research beginnings

I have just come to the end of my third week as a PhD student on an adventure to study the influence of front gardens on health and well-being. This piece aims to share what happens behind the scenes of the very early stages of research, where a bright-eyed geographer steps foot in a wonderfully interdisciplinary department and hits the ground running. Other than induction, settling into Sheffield, attending a fascination symposium on the work of fellow Landscape doctoral students, and learning the names of plants in my new landlords’ extensive garden, I have been developing a research methodology and building contacts to set up my experiments and research in the coming three years.

It is a particularly interesting challenge to plan experiments with variables that are not as controllable as a scientist would like; I will be working in the real world, planting in real people’s actual front gardens and with hypothesised (positive) impacts on their well-being. I am proud that I will contribute to one of the beautiful ways in which academic research can collaborate with other institutions (in this case, the Royal Horticultural Society), to escape the ivory tower and sow seeds of change, making a direct difference to people’s lives.

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How will I measure health and well-being?

Having said this, a key part of my evaluation of front gardens involves monitoring and measuring aspects of people’s lives that are often not tangible or objective. Exploring the literature and numerous case studies on how to measure health and well-being is opening my eyes to a world of methodological innovation and inspiring me to develop my own framework to determine the health impact of vegetating the front gardens of residents who previously had none. I am comparing the merits of each well-being scale, each measure of how satisfied people are with their lives, exploring combinations of subjective responses and more objective questions such as how much physical activity participants undertake. I am building on my understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of intervention evaluation.

At this stage, I am slowly creating a hybrid framework consisting of questionnaires on well-being, stress, and physical activity, buttressed by samples of salivary cortisol – an indicator of stress – and in-depth interviews and photo elicitation techniques to examine other therapeutic qualities of the front garden for each individual participant.

“It’s the best way to see what your neighbours are up to”

While it may be too early to say, a favourite part of my experience so far is how engaged everyone is in my project – from supervisors to colleagues, from my landlords to their neighbourhood community, and from guests met at a B&B to a friend’s boyfriend’s father living in Canada. Even though my research is fairly niche and technical, everyone I have talked to about it has had something to say. Whether a personal anecdote, a piece of news they have just read, or a radio programme they heard several years ago, everyone has something to tell me about front gardens. This is a good sign for my research, as it shouldn’t be too difficult to engage with future participants. Though largely overlooked, people enjoy having the opportunity to talk about their everyday experiences of the front garden. True to its nature as a liminal space between the public and the domestic, the front garden can become a vehicle for people to express some of their private feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Such self-reflection will prove to be a key aspect of uncovering the health and well-being impacts of front gardens.

Lauriane Suyin Chalmin-Pui is a University of Sheffield PhD student supervised by Ross Cameron.

6 thoughts on “Greening the Grey – Vegetating front gardens for improved well-being”

  1. Now this is common knowledge. Front gardens were built at a time that our population was much lower and wealth was less: people owned a front garden (and a back yard for growing veg) but often did not own a car.
    Most families these days drive a car (or two) and people in general are in need of a car parking space, a paved area, a large patio or another extention instead of green space. Much more convenient and much less work. People, man and woman, work long stressful hours and dont want the ‘burden’ of looking after their gardens any longer. Children are no longer asked to help, they have no ‘chores’ these days. They can play away on their electronical gadges instead. Or they are carted around from A to B by their parents in their 4WD’s. Simple as that. Furthermore: Larger Houses with traditional (beautiful) large gardens are demolished and the area is re-developed into two or three houses with smaller gardens. Or into flats. Re-development always means destruction of green spaces and lots of profit. Open green public spaces are mostly regarded as ‘waste land’ or ‘spare land’ and sooner or later the diggers will roll in. Sad but true. Only in very-very densely populated cities the sentiment may change in favour of a less built-up and a more green environment Overpopulation and ‘Over’-wealth are at the root of all this. A PhD on such a subject would be more interesting. Good luck.

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    1. Hi Mariskavl. Thank you for your comment. Sure, many of the things you say are commonplace. The effects of overpopulation, increasing wealth, and high mass consumption are indeed deep and wide-ranging, and many do study it. I’m not sure why that would negate looking at a much smaller scale of how people interact with their gardens and their immediate community.

      While it is true that most pave over their front gardens to park a car or because they are too busy to maintain it, it is slightly more complex than that. For example, resident owner, non-resident owners, and tenants all have different opinions on the matter. It is also possible to park a car and still have a low maintenance front garden. So there are economic, social and psychological factors that might determine the outcome of the front garden and understanding these might be useful in re-greening initiatives such as those headed by the RHS.

      My research is also trying to curb this sad trend and to re-green front gardens that are currently paved over so I don’t think that it is simply an intellectual exercise to formulate what might seem obvious at first glance.

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  2. Hi Lauriane,

    I’m in he process of setting up a Front Garden festival on an ex council estate in Bath – targeting nearly 900 houses.
    I’m an artist by profession so creativity is embedded and there are several and various elements to the FGF. I’m working with a number of and groups and organisations – but I’d like to share what I’m doing in case its of use to you beyond the survey.
    We’re in a unique position being away form the horticultural conservatism of the city centre and also Bath is not known for its grass roots (!!) gardening activity in the same way that Bristol is…but there are things happening here…it’s an exciting time.
    I’d love to talk more.

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  3. Hi Lauriane

    I am passionate about my front gardens, yes I have two! In one I have created a beach scene where I can relate to the nearby seaside. Coastal plants, driftwood benches and the odd lobster pot and shells for flotsam.

    It`s great to have a front space that is not meant to be taken too seriously and is loved by all.

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  4. Hello Lauriane, I think your project is quite worthwhile. I would be delighted to hear the results when one day they are published.
    I might recommend that you consider your methodology might be more qualitative, based on interviews and observation, rather than statistical tests that rarely reveal anything other than what the research set out to prove.
    Even focus groups would be helpful to your work.
    To me front gardens relate to the classic ‘cottage garden’ in which the home owner has to garden in a small, defined space. The result has often been delightful colors and structures in the plants the cottager chooses.
    You might examine the history of the cottage garden as one element of your work.
    Wish you the best.

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