An exploration of the politics and poetics of urban front gardens


Front gardens

A key feature of the 19th- and 20th-century traditional English terrace house, the front garden is a fascinating – though underappreciated – example of the public function that a private space can have. While on the one hand it contributes to improve the house’s own aesthetic and the outward view, on the other hand it encroaches into the public sphere. It is the dwelling’s peculiar way of communicating with the outside and, very often, the unique fingerprint of its dwellers’ green thumb. It is always intrinsically involved in identity issues, a representation of which is offered to the public. It is also a social gesture, a contribution to the public good and the environment – an often generous offer that only walkers can appreciate at its best.

In a time when walking has never been so restricted due to Covid-19 outbreak, the Museo del Camminare explores the poetics of the front gardens and the influence that these small private green spaces exert on the social sphere and the environment. It does so at a very short radius by focusing on the streets of De Beauvoir Town and its surroundings, West Hackney, London.

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A historical overview

Since the 19th century, the front garden has been a prominent part of the terrace and semi detached houses designed for a wide spectrum of the English society.

Drawing on earlier agricultural journals, the article Labourers’ Homes published in the 1860 London Quarterly Review promoted the building of the English cottage type in London as an ideal urban dwelling for labourers, pointing out that ‘each cottage should have its own front garden divided by a hedge or by pales and rails of old fashion’.1

The philanthropically-motivated Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes was the first commercial company to build cottages in London for the working classes. Its mid-19th-century Albert and Victoria Cottages [left and right, respectively] on both sides of Deal Street provide an extant charming example of the presence of the front garden in small terraced houses intended for small artisan families who were unable to pay the higher rents in what was then one of the poorest area of the city.

The high rents that the working population of 20th-century London had to pay even for poor accommodation was one of the key problems that also Ebenezer Howard aimed to solve in 1898 with his idea of garden city. Howard believed that ‘the country must invade the town’ and that new small cities had to be created in which ‘higher wages are compatible with reduced rents and rates’; ’equal, nay better, opportunities of social interaction may be enjoyed’; ‘beautiful homes and gardens may be seen on every hand’; and ‘the bounds of freedom may be widened, and yet all the best results of concert and co-operation gathered in by a happy people’.2

The principles of the Garden City Movement that stemmed from his idea were first implemented in the early 1900s at Letchworth – about 40km north of London – by the architect and urban planner Raymond Unwin, who assigned a key role to the front garden.

According to Unwin: ‘The carefully fenced-off front garden patch tends to emphasise the detachment of the units, whereas, from the point of view of the street picture, it is of the greatest importance to emphasise their relation and grouping’.3 He identified a fundamental difference between the American and the English front gardens, the former being left open to the road, while the latter fenced-off to meet the people’s desire of privacy. Unwin stressed the importance of hedges and shrubberies, by means of which ‘to enclose parts of the garden, without necessarily enclosing the whole space’.4

The great favour that the semi-detached houses received by the middle-classes since the early 20th-century further enhanced the role of the front garden in the British urban landscape. The postwar advance of apartment blocks and high-rise housing challenged the small house model with its garden, until some reconsideration began to emerge. With his 1973 The Village in the City, Nicholas Taylor was one of the first to point out how the disappearance of the front garden with its ‘traditional self-protective clothing’ and its ‘semi-public display of roses, rocks and gnomes’ had negatively impacted on the people’s relationships with their neighbours.5 About ten years later, Alice Coleman’s Utopia on Trial condemned the apartments blocks and rehabilitated living in the terraced and semi-detached homes with their little gardens.6

The politics and poetics of front gardens

The front garden is a space in which the private and the public are negotiated. It is the connecting element with the outside, of which is the border, but not a no man’s land. When anthropologically and ethnographically investigated, these borderlands reveal ‘cross-fence’ social relations and tell stories of culture, society, environment, and identity. They disclose issues of personalisation and sometime narcissistic exhibitionism, while contributing to the making of a community and a better natural ecosystem.

Walking along front gardens allows one to establish occasional relations with the dwellers and to hear from them the history of their garden space arrangement. It also allows to understand to what extent the dweller’s desire for refuge and intimacy has to enter into compromise with public view and decoration. Only the walker can fully experience the magnetic attraction that many of these gardens exert, and how the sudden wish of entering them is systematically frustrated by manifest private property markers such as low walls, wood or iron fences, and plants.

Plants have been especially entrusted the task of addressing these dialectics of inside and outside, and they have been historically doing it according to the dwellers’ personal tastes and socio-economic status, as well as the changing cultural and botanical fashions.

While vegetable growing has always been relegated to the back garden, flowers and shrubs are the key elements that usually regulate the front garden’s oscillations between the two poles of showing and hiding. For the mid-19th-century labourers’ houses – the London Quarterly Review writes in 1860 – ‘nothing can be better than the holly-hock, the sunflower, gilliflowers in all their variety of stocks, walls, and pinks, – sweet-williams, London pride, and bachelor’s buttons, with daisy borders to the beds’, while an utilitarian exception is made for ‘bushes of rosemary and old-man for the wedding or funeral posy’.7

Unwin wrote in 1909 that in addition to the above-mentioned hedges and shrubberies, the best solution for some form of fence was ‘simple trellis, preferably of intertwined laths, unobtrusive in colour, and up which all sorts of climbing plants may readily twine’.8

In the late 1990s, Paul Barker, the founder of New Society magazine, analysed the non-planned architectural changes in the London suburbia specifically focusing on the semi-detached houses of Mayfield Avenue in Kenton and in their front gardens he observed the presence of ‘leylandii cypress, or euonymus, or pampas grass, or of course privet, the plant par excellence of the suburbs’.9 He further zoomed in on No. 40 Mayfield Avenue as a model of Kenton suburbia and found in its front garden neatly mown grass, a flowering cherry, a privet hedge with a plaster gnome behind it, and a battered B-reg Volvo 340. [40 Mayfield Avenue, Google Street View]

He noticed, however, how in the neighbouring houses privet had been replaced by brick walls – sometimes covered with variegated ivy – or wrought-iron fencing, or pre-cast concrete balustrades, with a ‘wild proliferation of crazy paving’ for parking on.10

The case of de beauvoir Town

This boho-chic district of West Hackney offers a great walking opportunity for an interesting exploration of the front gardens’ meanings and pleasures.

Its mid-19th-century semi-detached houses, together with the terraced dwellings of the neighbouring streets, allow the walker to appreciate a variety of attitudes to green spaces and to understand the extent to which a private space can contribute to the public good and the environment.

The map created by the Museo del Camminare is based on a selection of front gardens chosen to exemplify diverse designs and functions. The data and images collection has started in April 2020, through a series of Covid-19 lockdown-compatible walks performed locally, for a short period of daily exercise. The purpose is to offer walkers some key points for planning an itinerary in the neighbourhood and exploring the front gardens in their seasonal changes.

The map – which is in progress – facilitates the perception of the differences in garden management that usually exist across housing typologies, especially between semi detached houses [left, 43 Albion Drive]; small apartment blocks [centre, 38-58 Shrubland Road]; and medium-sized complexes [right, 1-8 Southgate Court, Downham Road].

It helps to observe the diverse uses of hedges – mostly box, privet, laurel – and climbing plants for protecting/closing the space or designing it, irregularly or geometrically. [left to right: 58 Downham Road; 60 Downham Road; 22 Ufton Road; 52 Northchurch Road]

It allows one to appreciate different gardening fashions, from vintage revisitation of old fashioned roses bushes [left, 28 Northchurch Road], to trendy species like star magnolias or ornamental grasses [centre, 16 Albion Square]. Or to enjoy the aesthetics of thematic gardens or the ways colours are put together [right, 33 Northchurch Road].

It opens a view on the direct/indirect migration of plants out of the private front gardens towards the public space. [left, Wall Pennywort, St Peter’s Church, De Beauvoir Road; centre, Campanula at 69 Albion Drive; right, Wisteria at 49 Albion Drive]

The map is also intended as a tool for the acquisition of some botanical knowledge and for a better understanding of local biodiversity. Each of these gardens is an ecosystem, outcome of the delicate and complex interaction between nature and man’s work. Together, they costitute a scattered botanical garden – always open and free for everybody to view –, in which common vegetables emphasise their ornamental qualities [left, Artichoke at 34 Halliford Street] or plants from different habitats and continents stimulate the senses and prompt emotional travels in time and space. [centre, Pampas Grass at 106 Culford Road; right, Kniphofia at 28 Halliford Street]


Cover image: Kniphofia or Red Hot Poker, 28 Halliford Street, April 2020, photo MdC.

1. ‘Labourers’ Homes’, London Quarterly Review, April 1860, p. 153.

2. Howard, Ebenezer, Garden Cities of To-morrow, London, Swan Sonnenschein, 1902, pp. 147, 18.

3. Unwin, Raymond, Town Planning in Practice. An Introduction to the Art of Designing Cities and Suburbs, London, Fisher Unwin, 1909, pp. 354-5.

4. Ibid., pp. 356-7.

5. Taylor, Nicholas, The Village in the City. Towards a New Society, London, Temple Smith, 1973, p. 80.

6. Coleman, Alice, Utopia on Trial. Vision and Reality in Planned Housing, London, Hilary Shipman, 1985.

7. ‘Labourers’ Homes’, op. cit., p. 153.

8. Unwin, Raymond, Town Planning in Practice, op. cit., p. 357.

9. Barker, Paul, ‘Non-Plan Revisited: or the Real Way Cities Grow’, Journal of Design History, 12, 2, 1999, p. 99.

10. Ibid., pp. 100-1.

© Museo del Camminare 2020, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0