Outside London, gardens are not the preserve of the rich

25th June 2020

Garden-gate is back. After the state-sanctioning of outdoor gatherings of up to six people, timelines and televisions are bristling with snarky suggestions that gardens are the preserve of the elite. Whilst it’s definitely frustrating to be without your own outdoor space in these very weird circumstances, the way that we are talking about gardens betrays not only a tellingly narrow metropolitan perspective but also a one-dimensional view of experiences of poverty and class.

Not all people called Dominic are scumbags, and not all poor kids live in high-rises. Until last summer I was a secondary school teacher in Blackpool. Eight neighbourhoods in the town are in the top ten most deprived in England, from an overall ranking of 32,844 areas. But the kids I taught, including the poorest, live in houses, not apartment blocks. In most neighbourhoods in Blackpool, fewer than 7% of dwellings don’t have a garden. The same is true of other seaside and post-industrial towns. In Jaywick, Essex the most deprived neighbourhood in the country according to the Ministry of Housing statistics, 92% of residences have their own outdoor space.

Furthermore, the fixation with gardens – whilst understandable during a time when access to outdoor space is particularly desirable – risks ignoring other dimensions of housing quality that impact residents regardless of lockdown restrictions. Poor housing, particularly where it is damp or cold, is linked to various physical illnesses, but most particularly to respiratory diseases. Residents, especially children, living in bad housing are more likely to experience wheezing, shortness of breath or asthma – are thus far more vulnerable to the more serious effects of Covid-19. Whilst it can be tempting to jeer at lockdown rules that seem to privilege those who have access to outdoor space, it’s worth remembering that having a garden doesn’t mean that the attached housing is up to standard (or big enough to accommodate everyone who lives in it). Years of contempt-driven underfunding has seen to that.

It’s striking how much advice to parents makes assumptions about the kind of space children have access to

Children in substandard – or even just small – accommodation, garden or not, will be struggling especially during the school closures. It’s striking how much advice to parents makes assumptions about the kind of space children have access to: many families simply won’t have the room to sit down for a family meal or have a quiet place for each child to sit and do schoolwork.

When I was teaching in Blackpool and mentioned my “flatmates”, the kids were horrified that I didn’t live in a “proper” house. They thought it was massively cool, though, that I got to live with my friends. A lot of the trappings of urban-millennial life – living in a rented flat, shacking up with your mates – are quite specific to middle-class university graduates.

Developers that cater to this demographic are often responsible for the gentrification of previously working-class inner-city neighbourhoods. Take, for example, Ancoats in Manchester. After the collapse of the cotton trade, this industrial district became a slum and was then largely derelict until its rapid and lucrative regeneration from the year 2000. Now, the historic factories are filled with small, fashionable flats – with hefty price tags but no gardens. It might be annoying to be without your own space outside during lockdown, but this shouldn’t be equated with the long-term and systemic inadequacy of housing for those who can least afford it (or used to erase the problematic politics of gentrification).

The garden narrative shows a really poor understanding of life in smaller, poorer towns

The garden narrative shows a really poor understanding of life in smaller, poorer towns – one that is symptomatic of a broader liberal forgetfulness about life outside the cities and reduces the breadth experiences of poverty in the UK to a single lazy stereotype. By all means, have a whinge about your lack of garden – no-one could have predicted how much we’d come to value them. But it’s not a simple case of the haves and have-nots. Poverty has multiple faces, and gardens aren’t a good enough metric for either the inequalities we’ve known for centuries or the ones that have emerged more starkly during lockdown.

25th June 2020