Aaah, spring. Season of the garden.
Here’s a conversation I’ve had more than once with someone moving out from London:
‘I’m after something with at least an acre.’
‘OK, great, do you have a horse or something?’
‘Nope. I just want a big garden.’
‘An acre is pretty big, are you sure you want that much?’
‘Yep. I want an acre.’
‘OK, here’s one with an acre.’
‘Woah, that’s a bit big, maybe I could actually make do with half an acre.’
In their minds people are really into having a big garden, but often they don’t know why and when presented with what they think they want it turns out they don’t want it at all. A third of an acre takes a serious amount of upkeep, never mind an acre.
There are, of course, plenty of specific needs people have that require land – animals, vehicles, vegetables, athletic children – but for many people what they actually want from a big garden is just privacy. Distance from neighbours. To be able to be in their house without folk being able to peer in and see what they’re up to. Many agents (mainly ones who like made up words) will often champion the ‘unoverlooked garden’, but it’s not actually being seen in the garden that most people are bothered about. I suppose some people might do things outside that they’d rather the neighbours didn’t see, but usually it’s the pants-and-bra dash from the bathroom to the bedroom they’d rather keep private. So what they want from their 130ft garden is 260ft between them and their neighbours behind, not a massive lawn to mow.
It’s not always like this in other countries. In sunny Iberian nations there are plenty of houses that don’t have private gardens at the back, folk sit out the front and chat to their neighbours as they walk by. Alpine chalets don’t surround themselves by 6ft fencing, the most they have is a usually a 2ft wall or a post-and-rail fence just to mark their boundary. We’re famously bashful as a nation and perhaps the way we lay our gardens out is a symptom of that.
When you think about it, it’s arguably grumpy, unfriendly and unnecessary.
Isn’t it nicer to see people? To know your neighbours? To be part of your community, not shut away by yourself?
I guess we all need different levels of social interaction to maintain our mental wellbeing. I very regularly want to be by myself, but equally I quickly feel lonely if I don’t see other people. In this country we used to meet in pubs, but we’re drinking less than we were and pubs are declining. Coffee shops are the modern alternative, but there are only so many flat whites you can drink (oat milk with mine, please) before you get the shakes and/or run out of money. We love to meet people who share our hobbies at golf clubs or knitting circles or Warhammer conventions but in the streets we live on we’ve make it really difficult for ourselves to easily interact with our neighbours.
But things are changing. Visit some of the new developments in Trumpington and their continental influences are immediately obvious. They do mostly have their own gardens, we’re not quite ready to lose that completely, but the areas also have central squares and public spaces. Some of them are also very carefully designed to try to help us shift away from our over-reliance on cars. It’s not so lovely sitting out the front if there’s a constant stream of noisy traffic speeding by, but with limited parking, lower speed limits and streets designed to favour pedestrians and push bikes over cars, these developments really do feel different. They don’t suit everyone. If you need a massive van for work or are a four car household they’re wholly impractical, but if your lifestyle enables you to get about on foot or on a bike or on public transport they’re potentially really appealing.
We still get plenty of resistance from traditional buyers to this type of design, but I’m a believer. A believer that more interaction between people can only be a good thing, that loneliness is a bad thing and that people being able to see into your house or garden isn’t actually the end of the world. But then I have been running a fair bit recently, so I look pretty good in my pants and bra.