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Gardens and Green Spaces

During the past eighteen months, the significant benefits and impact of green spaces and gardens have been more clearly illustrated in helping to fight the mental health consequences that people face in a Covid world. The challenges of Covid, lockdowns and restrictions have impacted people’s health and well-being, green spaces and gardens have contributed to alleviate some of the consequences people face in a Covid world. Where Covid has meant we need to socially distance from each other, gardens have served in helping to facilitate and improve neighbourhood relations; dramatically illustrating the benefits of green spaces and gardens.

Gardens are imbued with meaning beyond their aesthetic qualities. As plants flourish, grow, change, age and die the vocabulary of the garden’s existence serves equally well to describe our own. It provides a metaphor for the relationships between human beings and communities. The garden makes visible how the world touches us, through the planting and nurturing process, it is a sign of human caring. As a component of human existence green and natural spaces affect social, emotional, personal and spiritual state and relations. The verdant garden mediates our relationship with the natural world, as our senses contribute to place making, the sensory stimulation feeds into a broader desire to feel part of the natural world. Nature and gardens have sensuous qualities that stimulate our five senses which, are closely connected to our emotions and memories, they have an impact on how we feel. Even bite-size nature seen in urban landscapes through tree-lined streets and front gardens provide us with a meaningful and beneficial experience. Gardens allow us to see, to feel, to hear, to smell. The aesthetic input yielded by plants, shrubs and trees supports the full range of sensual experience and offers a sensory stimulation that has been shown to reduce stress as well as giving us the opportunity to process thoughts and emotions. Our nervous systems are particularly responsive to environmental stimuli, as external environments influence people’s internal state, a symbiotic relationship exists between people and place. Just as people are strongly affected by social interaction, they are bound to each other by sensory links and connections.

In contrast to the back garden, which offers a more private space, the front garden faces onto the street and so performs a different more public, shared role. We use the front garden to reconcile the house and the street with nature. Front gardens have much to say about who we are, as they provide a narrative onto the street that shapes the urban landscape. As most people seek companionship and the sharing of experiences, giving the front garden an active use animates the space and allows people to participate in social interaction. Engendering a sense of feeling and being part of a community also helps us feel a sense of empowerment. As residents chat from their front gardens to fellow neighbours and to passers-by, outdoor green spaces and gardens enable us to interact and connect safely with each other, respecting Covid boundaries, while at the same time being exposed to nature. The contribution this makes to people’s health and wellbeing derives from these conversations and interactions but also from the contribution to people’s sense of time and space - the spatial and temporal dimensions of people’s health and wellbeing. Lockdown means we are restricted to indoors for weeks/months at a time; one day merges into the next. As the daily cycle of the sun and moon are utilised by gardens, so our gardens become like clocks articulating time. When outside we see periodic and gradual changes in the natural environment that allow us to plot the rhythm of the seasons, which regulate our lives. The front garden allows us to focus on where we live and build, as well as our climate. When you walk down the street, front gardens provide a collective tapestry that flows along the street, breaking down the uniformity and monotony of the street offering stimulating points of interest and rest for the eye. When we exercise outside, we experience space and time simultaneously. Space outside becomes the “sphere of freedom from physical constraints and time as duration in which, tension is followed by ease”. (Yu Fu Tuan, Space and Place).

The front garden offers us a microcosm of society and human behaviour, it enhances our understanding of how human beings connect and interact with each other, which has become increasingly important during Covid lockdowns. Front gardens have much to say about who we are. They provide a narrative onto the street, shaping the urban landscape as they look out onto the street and inwards to the house. Both open and closed they keep things in, and they keep things out, a process that relies on boundaries to create a separation from the street and the world outside. Front gardens define areas and movement as an acceptable Covid safe zone and not seen as an avoidance; they allow you to communicate and interact, mediating between self and others, indoor and outdoor. In a Covid world, we are spending our days avoiding people through social distancing, limiting interaction and engagement, avoiding physical contact with each other. Making comparisons, as we are forced to stay at home, the front garden helps to mitigate these behavioural restrictions and the consequences of Covid rules. We experienced this in March 2020 when people stood in their front gardens to clap for NHS workers. Were it not for the front garden how would we engage with people in our local community?

The great country house owners designed and planned parkland settings with a long-term vision to imprint their heritage onto the landscape. In a similar way, people’s cultivation and involvement with their gardens is an opportunity to evidence themselves and their heritage in and onto the urban landscape. The long-term cultivation of a garden leaves behind a legacy that can signal a degree of impact and permanence. Most people plant their gardens up for the long term, few of us plant only for today. A person’s identity and place in the world are communicated through the garden, like writing down something for posterity, or a form of autobiography. The concept of the garden with a narrative ‘written down’ has a sense of permanence and memory that seems particularly poignant to me at a time when so many thousands of people have lost their lives to Covid.

Evidence suggests that exposure to green spaces and nature produces a multitude of benefits ranging from better health, mental and physical, to improving neighbourhood relationships; with gardens and green spaces helping to mitigate some of the negative impacts of Covid and lockdown. The pandemic has impacted on us all. For people living in flats without gardens or access to green spaces, the negative impact of lockdown has been felt more acutely. The current situation has impressed upon us the significance and importance of our gardens, green spaces and nature in a world where the pandemic is significantly impacting our health and well-being. Gardens are a safe outlet for creativity and design, however limited that may be, but they can also allow us to feel a sense of control over our physical surroundings as well as a way of escaping our concerns and anxieties. There is a “symbolic refusal of the terms under which, life has been presented to us… as such it is always an act of hope.” (Mara Miller-The Garden as an Art). Hope is something we all need most especially now, during the pandemic.

By Alison Worlledge


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