I spoke last year about gardens in flats, in the context of Switch House Controversy, including a few cheeky overlook photos of my own:
As you can see, these flats are in the modern fishtank style; environmentally sealed to minimise energy costs (a popular approach at the moment), all life shut behind unopening windows of thickened safety glass. You can see plants in the "gardens" at the prow end of the building, but these will always be indoor plants, as the pets (we saw a fancy, bushy-tailed cat) will always be indoor pets. There is no sky here, no looking up into endless air. You can buy a telescope, but the stars will always be behind glass.
Does it matter that flats fail to deliver on that small patch of ground you can call your own, that thin narrow slice where you stand on the soil and look up to the sky? My flat-dwelling friends seem more stressed. There are conversations about management committees and residents' associations, endless wranglings among polarised factions. There are rules which seem unfair and petty, fights over what happens in the common space, which is often also the green space, where there is green space.
A balcony provides a space which can be filled with pots; a friend of mine, a notable gardener, used her time living in Docklands as a chance to try out all the ultra-tenders and UK impossibles on her wishlist in her suntrap balcony. You can cover windows and walls with Monstera and Aspisitra, Maidenhair fern and orchids. You can live in the green in a flat, without having a garden of your own. You can even grow vegetables.
But you'll always be in a hothouse; your heels will never sink into soil cool with yesterday's rain. The only rain will be the rain you bring, human, rainmaker. The inevitable insect invasions (I am willing to bet that even the sealed fishtanks of Bankside will suffer this, as I've yet to see a system sealed enough to defy the aphid) will never stabilise into a manageable ecosystem. The anxious calculations of weighting, watering and disposing must consider the regulations and considerations of your allotted space, which is a bedroom, and not an allotment. The space that must be protected against plants, the openers of cracks, and against water, the finder and expander of problems.
Or could there be a way to make it work? With more open designs, better rainwater recovery, adoption of stone and cliff gardening techniques, trickle down and float up ecosystems that connect ground level greenery with green roofs, minibeast corridoors that float the pests and pollinators and predators upwards through bubbles and trails of greenery, could we have flats that deliver green space for all, cooling, comforting, diffusing, defusing flat living?
The Greening Grey Britain campaign is concentrating on the easier target of front gardens, replacing concrete, tarmac and sealed-surface coverings with porous areas of gravel, unsealed block paving and tough planting. It's admirable, it's helpful, but the urbs that are sub enough to have front gardens are perhaps not the most at need here.
At an impressionable age, I read The Usborne Book of the Future, and in in particular, Part 2 : Future Cities, pp 38-9 (here sadly split by a page-turn) and my view of utopianism was fixed. Garden City on Cared-For Planet; a word of high-tech and concrete, bicycles and monorails, unweeded and riotous and perfectually in flower, buried under softly-dripping flowering vines.
That's the grey Britain I want to see greened.
ETA here is the full spread of the Two Trips to the 21st Century, lovingly scanned by Mewsings