AS I SEE IT
Some of the proposals to solve the housing crisis have been weird and far from wonderful. Like the one where oldies like me would be required to shuffle off into apartments and vacate their hard-won forever homes to make room for others.
No chance in my case, as there’s no way I am going to live stories up where I can’t walk out the front door and into the garden. I have earned my space in the sun. I could come up with a few daft suggestions to solve the housing crisis myself. How about sending folk up North where property is cheaper? There they could help with all-Ireland integration by getting familiar with the northern point of view, a change from Sinn Fein pointing a border poll at our heads. Or the State could take over near-empty convents, they can be converted into lovely apartments and then they really would be mother and baby homes.
Talking of gardens, the idea that really takes the prize dahlia is suggestion recently by developers Glenveagh Properties that gardens should be made smaller – all the better to pack housing units in more densely. The developers claim their so-called blueprint could become a ‘game changer’ by shaving off more than a quarter of the distance between the rears of houses. Hard to avoid the conclusion that the scheme for “more tightly built streets” would allow developers to pack in more profits.
Perhaps developers don’t have much interest in gardening. I do though, in my patch now the seasonal parade is in full bloom: the hydrangeas are doing their blowsy best and the agapanthus are bursting into balls of sapphire blue. I love my garden it’s a place to enjoy the changing colours of each season, smell fresh mown grass, hear the dawn chorus in Spring and watch birdlife unfolding. But, claim Glenveagh, part of back gardens are ‘dead space’ and they want to reduce their size by a third.
Now surely people need space? Not necessarily for gardening, although lockdown released many of the inner gardeners in us, but for kids and pets to play, for barbecues, for privacy and a look at any property page will tell you, to extend homes. And just look at all those TV programmes about ways to transform plots into gorgeous places to relax in. if gardens were to be shrunk why couldn’t we have the space somewhere else. isn’t public green space important to us for all kinds of reasons from well-being to mental health?
One of the things that is absent from the whole debate around housing is how to create better built environments for the future. The focus is on numbers of units and so we get soulless rows of houses, packed to shoulder together on the same building line or communist era type apartment blocks like the one I pass regularly on the N11, which sits a few feet away from this thundering main traffic artery without a stitch of green around it. How did the building ever get planning permission?
Landscaping and design – which are essential elements of urban planning – get overlooked. We need green spaces with trees and plants for both for environmental and for human reasons. We need our own little rainforest effect, over a lifetime of 100 years a single tree can absorb 1tonne of CO2. Trees cut down pollution, absorb storm water and people do better around trees, with benefits from from lowered stress to lower blood pressure. Trees and plants provide habitats for all kinds of creatures and nectar for pollinators. Many of the parks and green spaces in our cities were created centuries ago, new urban spaces are rare and we need more of them.
What about important words like proximity and thinking along village lines where nothing is more than a five minutes bike ride or walk away, be it the corner shop or the park and where neighbours can congregate on the green. Some previous planning ideas like garden cities or satellite villages linked to main cities with public transport might merit revival.
Some of the earliest formal gardens were Persian Paradise gardens, enchanting places filled with rills of running water, fruit trees and flowers. Maybe we need a bit more paradise rather than less green space.
* Marianne Heron is the author of several books on gardens, including The Hidden Gardens of Ireland, (Gill and Macmillan)