Urban areas can be some of the most biologically diverse habitats in the country. Gardens and parks – comprising lawn, shrubs and flowering plants – provide food and shelter for a huge array of wildlife. And yet these spaces are disappearing from our towns and cities.

In a report published in 2016, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) said the percentage of front gardens lost to paving, concrete or gravel had risen to 24%, from just 8% in 2005 1 . The results, based on a poll of 1,492 people, suggested that more than 4.5 million of Great Britain’s front gardens were entirely paved, while 7.2 million were mostly paved. Another report, published by London Wildlife Trust in 2011, compared aerial surveys of London taken in 1998 and 2006. It found that domestic gardens (both front and back) made up nearly 24 per cent of the London’s total area, but that in those eight years nearly two thirds of its front gardens had been covered with hard surfaces, while the amount of green space in back gardens had shrunk, largely due to the popularity of garden offices 2 . "An area of vegetated garden equivalent to 21 times the size of Hyde park was lost between 1998 and 2006," said the author of the report, Chloë Smith. That’s an average of two Hyde Parks per year (and a further 14 Hyde Parks since 2011).

Space is at a premium in urban areas. Front gardens are paved to park cars, while back gardens are lost to anything from garden offices to low-maintenance paving, decking and fake lawns. Some are being lost completely, as gardens are ‘grabbed’ by developers and used to build a new house. Those gardens that are left are often fenced off so wildlife, such as hedgehogs and amphibians, cannot pass through them.

In a similarly bleak trend, our homes, once used by swifts, starlings and house sparrows, are being made more energy efficient – holes are bricked up and eaves are blocked off. New-builds provide little or no nesting opportunities. Increasingly, councils are forced to sell parks to developers to fund basic services. Buildings are erected or updated; their outdoor spaces paved for ease of use or maintenance. We’re paving over our towns and cities, paving over our wildlife.

The decline of many wildlife species is more pronounced in urban areas than in the countryside: butterflies are vanishing from our towns and cities, house sparrows suffer greater losses in urban areas. Indeed, in roughly the same timescale (1994 to 2004) as Chloë Smith noted the huge loss of gardens in London, another survey, conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), found that London’s house sparrow populations had decreased by 59% 3 *. We have to take action to stop this creeping grey tide engulfing our cities. We need legislation to re-wild our urban spaces.

KATE BRADBURY, GARDENER & AUTHOR

References:
1. Royal Horticultural Society. Greening Grey Britain [Online]. Available at: 
https://www.rhs.org.uk/communities/pdf/Greener-Streets/greening-grey-britain-report.pdf(Accessed 12/09/2018)
2. Smith, C. (2010). London: Garden city? London Wildlife Trust, Greenspace Information for Greater London Greater London Authority [Online]. Available at: 
https://www.wildlondon.org.uk/sites/default/files/files/London%20Garden%20City%20-%20full%20report.pdf(Accessed 12/09/2018)
3. Crick, H.Q.P., Robinson, R.A., Appleton, G.F. Clark, N.A., Rickard, A.D. (2002). (eds) Investigation into the causes of the decline of starlings and house sparrows in Great Britain.
BTO Research Report 290. Defra, London

*This figure corresponds to the recorded decline from 1994 to 2004. Earlier records, however, tell us a different, much more dramatic story. When Max Nicholson, the founding father of WWF, surveyed the house sparrow population of Kensington gardens in 1925, he counted 2,603 individuals. In the year 2000, when he repeated the count for the last time, he only found 8. This suggests we may have lost 99% of the house sparrow population in the UK, and highlights the importance of looking at historical records to get a bigger, more truthful picture.