How a London community garden is holding out against urbanisation
Francisco Garcia SEPTEMBER 3 2021
From Detroit to Madrid, community green spaces are having a moment in the spotlight
On the first Saturday afternoon of every month, a few of the residents of Brenchley Gardens meet at the south-east London estate’s community garden, for a few hours of upkeep and a catch up with their neighbours.
The first thing that strikes you about the estate — 95 homes spread across mid-level towers and terraced houses, occupied by a mixture of social renters and leaseholders — is how green and open it is. Having a private garden doesn’t feel like such a pressing need here, with plenty of collective space to relax and take in some fresh air.
Community gardens are having a moment. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, over an 18-month period when two of their main draws — gentle sociability and the chance to go outside — have been in such scarce supply. There’s been a steady recent slew of articles championing their transformative effects on everything from mental health, to neighbourhood cohesion and biodiversity.
But Brenchley Gardens is at a crossroads. Literally, in that it sits in the pleasant half-suburban intersection between Nunhead, Honor Oak Park and Forest Hill. More pressingly, in that its very greenness has recently been used as justification for a proposed and hotly contested development on the estate.
Rain beat down incessantly when I arrived on the first weekend in August, though it hadn’t dampened anyone’s enthusiasm. Children whirled about, while a few dutiful adults tended to the apples and blackberries in the fruit garden. I’d been invited by Adam Warner, who resides in one of the tower blocks. After a cheerful hello, we’d soon decamped to shelter under the covered porch by the estate community hall to talk over the “Save Brenchley Gardens” campaign.
In early 2021, Southwark council put forward plans to redevelop the estate. Forty new homes would be created by building on top of the existing tower blocks and by “in filling” the apparently superfluous green space. No one disputes the need for more social housing — the waiting list in the borough sits at around 15,000. After all, Southwark has spent the past decade and more selling off its housing stock to private developers, most infamously with the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, sold for just £50m to Lendlease in 2010 and redeveloped into private flats. Lendlease is advertising flats for sale in the new “Elephant Park” starting at £932,000.
Residents at Brenchley Gardens had never thought of their estate as a faux-bucolic urban wonderland. It’s just where they live. The green space, the small gardens, are an indivisible part of it. They aren’t against more social housing being built. It’s just that the terms of the development didn’t make sense to them. One resident, Kathrin, says, “it’s not a wasteland, it’s our garden”.
… It’s impossible to say what exactly the long-term future holds for Brenchley Gardens. On April 26, the council wrote to residents to say that it was no longer considering infill development of the gardens, a significant victory for their campaign. However, the rooftop proposals were [only] put on hold, leaving another potential battle on the horizon.