Gibbon’s Rent garden, London Bridge. Photograph: MIckey Lee
The Society of Garden Designers awards are the industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, bestowing accolades upon the very best of UK garden design. This year the proceedings featured a stream of images of domestic dream gardens, revealing the wealth of creativity that designers apply in sculpting private plots, to realise owners’ aspirations through finely honed hardscape and inspirational planting.
But a more social sensibility was also in evidence, in the newly-introduced designing for community space award, which acknowledges the importance of design in creating places to accommodate diverse communal needs. The award is a timely recognition of the pressures put on public space by the inexorable rise of urban density, and the benefits that sensitive placemaking can offer, in bringing people together with nature, and with each other. As SGD chair Juliet Sargeant commented, “Regular access to nature increases health and wellbeing, reduces crime and fosters community cohesion. It is essential to protect and develop the green spaces in our towns and cities in order provide a sustainable future and make places where people want to live”.
The award went jointly to Gibbon’s Rent, a neglected alleyway in London Bridge transformed into a colourful and much loved urban oasis by landscape designer Sarah Eberle and Australian architect Andrew Burns, and the Montpelier Community Nursery garden in Camden, a playspace by garden designer Jackie Herald, which embraces and compliments a small wooden nursery designed by AY Architects.
Montpelier Community Garden Nursery in Camden, London. Photograph: Daniel Stier
The significance of the prize was apparent in the winning designers’ responses to it. Eberle, a multi-RHS medal and best in show winner at the Chelsea flower show, was especially thrilled “to get recognition for a ‘gritty’ and relatively low cost urban project, particularly such a small space that directly improves the lives of the immediate community”. Herald found it “extremely rewarding to receive accolades from professional peers for a garden that has community cohesion, enjoyment, and a green agenda at its heart”.
Obviously community gardens are nothing new, but considered design has all too often been conspicuous by its absence. While many community gardens have undoubtedly proved successful employing a pragmatic hands-on approach, a more strategic design can take things a step further, providing an opportunity to create maximum user flexibility, reduce maintenance, ensure sustainability and future proof places against unforeseen, potentially resource-draining circumstances.
It’s something that I am acutely aware of, and actively engaged with, as a director of Cityscapes, a garden festival dedicated to transforming public spaces through temporary and permanent urban garden design interventions. It is pleasing to see the SGD’s new award puts design firmly to the fore, especially as we were one of the delivery partners of Gibbon’s Rent, along with The Architecture Foundation Team London Bridge and Southwark Council.
The flexibility of Gibbon’s Rent shows just how design can be employed to create an engaging environment. The design features a series of large concrete drainage pipes, which Eberle has utilised as planters filled with an exotic array of plants, providing a year-round sensory experience. Surrounding these are various sized plant pots, placed and moved around by local residents, continually modifying the site according to their horticultural needs and seasonal interests.
Since opening in June 2012, the garden has become fitfully inhabited by local residents and businesses for a wide variety of uses, including food growing, sunflower competitions and carol singing. St Mungo’s Putting Down Roots gardening project for the homeless, provides further community interaction by ensuring quality year round maintenance.
The project took a fresh approach to creating public spaces, cultivating not only a garden in a previously barren urban space, but also a community of gardeners, with funding from both public and private sectors, and collaboration between cultural organisations, international designers and local residents.
Such new models of multi-stakeholder engagement offer opportunities for both designers and communities to work together, responding to specific sites and local needs, to create places that are both aesthetically appealing and functionally flexible. The very kind of well designed spaces that the SGD will certainly be looking forward to celebrating with their award in the future.
• Darryl Moore is a landscape designer, garden writer and director of Cityscapes.