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