We explore the past and future of London’s residential garden squares, how much it costs to live on one and one woman’s campaign to regenerate hers
Words Nigel Lewis
London’s garden squares are much loved by the people who work or live around them, usually as somewhere to snatch a lunchtime sandwich or maybe to enjoy a sun-soaked afternoon.
They have cultural value too; author PD Smith recently described them as the “capital’s greatest contribution to the development of urban form” even though, technically, we stole the idea off the Italians.
The resulting 300-plus garden squares within London come in different flavours ranging from the historic, such as Grays Inn Square, to the more common Regency and Victorian ones the loveliest of which arguably are Russell Square and Soho Square.
And let’s not forget the super-prime ones; rarefied pockets of greenery surrounded by Regency splendour such as Cadogan, Belgravia or Eaton Square. And which cost millions to overlook.
“Our data shows that in the last 18 months, the average price paid per sq. ft. in Eaton Square was £4,113,” says Camilla Dell of property finding firm Black Brick.
“When we compared this to nearby Eaton Place, buyers paid an average of £2,404 per sq. ft. That is a whopping 42% premium to be on Eaton Square.”
Equally expensive is London’s first purpose-built garden square, Southampton Square, now called Bloomsbury Square and built by the 4th Early of Southampton during the 1650s.
“The gardens in most London squares have been for the benefit of and maintained by the residents since their inception, with evidence dating from the late-17th Century of a levy afforded upon residents for the upkeep of ‘rayles, payles, fountain and garden’,” says agent Martin Bikhit of of Kay & Co.
“In the Jane Austin novel Emma”, Mr and Mrs. Knightley are discussing the notoriously bad air in London and, when asked why they have remained near New Brunswick Street they retort that the garden square in which they live is unlike the rest of London and “so very airey!”.
And later builders in Londoners also saw their ‘airey’ plus-points. Take for example the more concrete squares created by post-war town planners. Or more recent versions, much beloved of builders these days who are often hoping to add the spice of space to their developments.
It’s not a surprise that squares should hold such enduring appeal. Since the 17th century, as London’s dirt, noise and congestion has waxed and waned, so squares have remained a tranquil place of respite.
“To have a flat or house in central London overlooking beautifully kept gardens and trees is one of the most desired amenities and therefore it is no surprise that having a view adds hugely to property values,” says Merlin Dormer of buying agency Heaton & Partners.
“Garden squares are one of the defining features of London and they also have some of the most sought-after properties, even influencing modern developments like Chelsea Barracks, which will incorporate its own garden squares.
“If you look at statistics for the highest prices paid per square foot in prime central London it is almost always a property with a green view.”
Narendra Gandi of Winkworth says that in his experience squares are treasured because they are an important way to bring residents together, whether it’s just to say hello and gossip, or to hold community summer parties.
“Given the choice of a concrete ‘jungle’ or a ‘garden square’, I know most people’s choice would be the latter,” he says.
London’s newest one is Packington Square in Islington (pictured, below), part of a £170m development of 600 apartments by Hyde New Homes and Rydon which will see two further squares built nearby later on.
Spokesperson Minnie Dando says this development’s squares are all about community. “We have been careful to maintain the traditional community concept of the housing estate set up on the exact same spot in 1563 by Dame Anne Packington to provide accommodation for the Clothworker’s Company,” she says.
London’s most famous square residents are Tony and Cherie Blair, who live on Connaught Square in Bayswater. Opposite their house agent Marti Bikhit has a similar property to theirs for sale for £7.5 million.
“Connaught Square was the first square of houses to be built in the Bayswater area,” he says. “Named after the Duke of Gloucester – The Earl of Connaught – the square dates to the 1820s.”
Martin says Montagu Square in Marylebone is the only remaining square in Westminster which is wholly residential and has proven highly popular with US buyers who love the quintessential English architecture.
But away from these bastions of wealth are less salubrious affairs, but equally of note. For example, Globe Town Market square in Tower Hamlets is unlikely to have been high on the Blairs’ wish list, but it should have been.
Nearby resident and business owner Kerry Mounsley who owns ethical clothing business Very Kerry is running a campaign to raise funds to be matched by The Mayor of London’s Crowdfund London campaign, which gives grants of up to £50,000 to regeneration projects like hers.
Kerry wants to turn the tired and usually litter-strewn area into ‘Rainbow Square’ in part by creating a multi-coloured umbrella roof for the square (see before and after pix below).
“The plan is, with the participation of locals to turn the space into a vibrant and colourful hub of community-oriented activities, as well as regaining appeal with traders and their customers, its original purpose,” she says.
But the most famous square in London has not been mentioned yet. Parliament Square. It too underwent an attempted re-birth back in 2008, just in time for plans to be scrapped after the financial crisis hit.
The planned redesign would have seen half the roundabout taken out and replaced with a Trafalgar Square-style open space that would be a “new tourist destination for London”. Sadly, the plans were never revived. Let’s hope Rainbow Square fares better.