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Green Sky Thinking: Urban ecology at the Phoenix Garden, Covent Garden

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‘Sustainable by Design’ discuss wildlife and education in the heart of London


Phoenix Gardens - a hidden oasis in Covent Garden


Peter Corley, Chair of the Phoenix Garden Committee speaks photo: Andrew Watson

Green Sky Thinking continued this morning with a presentation and stroll around Phoenix Garden, a flourishing garden tucked away in London’s West End. This enchanting green oasis is a fully ‘dry garden’ and hasn’t been watered in over ten years.

‘The garden’, explains Peter Corley, Chair of the Phoenix Garden Committee, ‘has its roots in an old bomb site from the second world war. It was a tipping site, then a car park until the 1980s. What you see today was constructed by volunteers in 1984. You can see this legacy in the planting - we have only a couple of inches of soil until you hit bricks and rubble.’


Bomb damage on Stacey Street, c.1941


Bomb damage on Stacey Street, c.1941

The existing visitor building on the site was constructed as a temporary facility in 1984, expected to be in use for just five years. By now, it is woefully inadequate for current needs, so Phoenix commissioned Putney-based Sustainable by Design to design a new education and events building. Sustainable by Design’s Lynne Sullivan guided the audience through the scheme for the new building; a major driver was to respect and accomodate existing habitats and wildlife.

The centre will include a workspace, kitchen and disabled toilet on the ground floor and a teaching room for 15 children above. Key design considerations were providing views of the garden and neighbouring Shaftsbury Avenue along with daylit interiors. The building, which will be naturally ventilated, used Passivhaus software as a design tool, but the building itself will not be certified. The proposed wall insulation includes 86 per cent recycled content.


Sustainable by Design’s proposal for the Phoenix Garden site


View from Stacey Street

A brown roof re-using brick rubble from the site will provide a replacement habitat for the building’s footprint. The roof will also be a propagation area for potted plants. A ‘habitat wall’ designed into the building will provide a nesting area for the many bird species that visit the site, including wrens and sparrows, in the boxes provided. There will also be spaces provided for the garden’s thriving frog community.


Green wall to provide nesting habitats for local birds


Phoenix Gardens are the home to the West End’s only frog community


Chris Raeburn, urban gardener, artist and ecology expert speaks about the garden photo: Andrew Watson

Funding for the building will be provided by a combination of a Section 106 agreement from a neighbouring development, 2 Trust House, Sainsbury’s and a private donation. Earlier this year a key Council grant was cut, so the garden now relies solely on fundraising and private events.

At peak times, such as a hot summer days, Phoenix receives over 200 visitors. Volunteer support is crucial to the running of the garden - a team of local helpers arrive every other Sunday to assist with the planting. The garden is managed by Dragon Hall, a local community centre, with assistance from Camden Council. Outreach includes work with local groups such as St Mungos and the Soho Housing Association.


The morning concluded with an overview of the garden’s ecosystem and plant life by resident gardener Christopher Raeburn, who became involved with the project in 2002. ‘Everything in the garden must do two things’, says Chris. ‘The gabion benches re-use rubble on-site, alongside being a useful habitat for a variety of species’. Only one skip load of rubble has left the site since the beginning of Chris’ involvement with the project.

Key challenges in the management and running of the garden include strategies for dealing with the inevitable anti-social behaviour which is inherent in the central London location. One way Chris has tackled this has been to ensure the space can be read as a ‘garden’ - through ornamental planting and ensuring some plants are always in flower.


Anti-social behaviour was a key challenge in the development of the garden and new building

The morning concluded with a statement from Chris: ‘It takes a lot of work to look this natural’.

The garden hosts three or four main events per year, including an agricultural day at the beginning of September. The Phoenix Garden is normally open dawn until dusk every day of the year, but will close on October 3 for the building works, to re-open in early 2013.


from the left: Peter Corley, Chair of The Phoenix Garden Committee, Lynne Sullivan OBE, sustainableBYdesign LLP, Chris Raeburn, Urban gardener  / / photo: Andrew Watson


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