Urban chic - BOLD VISIONS, GREAT DESIGNS - Garden Design (2015)

Garden Design (2015)

Bold Visions, Great Designs

Urban chic


Cool green planting underpinned by crisp, formal design, pale stone paving and dark, mysterious water combines to create the tranquil ambience of this small enclosed city garden.


STYLISH GARDENS in towns and cities fuse high quality materials with contemporary furnishings to create cool oases in the heart of the urban jungle. Large leafy plants rub shoulders with seasonal flowers in colour-coordinated schemes that complement the interior décor of the owner’s home.

Clear visions

Small outdoor spaces designed and furnished to the highest specifications have come to define this approach to garden-making, but unlike many other styles, which have developed from an historic precedent that determines the design principles and stylistic execution, the urban garden is more a response to increasing population densities and shrinking outdoor spaces in our towns and cities.

Gardens can form part of an historic or period property, new-build housing development, apartment with a balcony or roofscape, or a shared community space, with each location influencing how they are designed and the features they accommodate. Many urban designs are an extension of the home; outdoor rooms visualised as spaces for indulging and enjoying a particular lifestyle, such as alfresco entertaining or relaxing. They also reflect the taste, needs, and personality of the owner or client and represent their cultural expectations and persuasions, making a statement about who they are and what they stand for. The garden may, for example, encompass a particular passion, such as an outdoor kitchen or a music or artist’s studio.

Designs are interpreted in a wholly contemporary way with clarity and a simplicity of intent, underpinned by architectural styling and clean flowing lines that allow the built form and constructional materials to predominate and reinforce the look. Spaces are usually paved with high calibre materials, including granite, marble, or ashlar blocks in the most prestigious venues, or natural sandstone and hardwood decking in gardens where budgets are more limited.

Design considerations

The need for privacy and seclusion is an important design consideration in town gardens, with wall treatments such as trelliswork or pleached hedges raising the height of boundaries, while abiding by the legal limits that often apply in built-up areas. Designers may also need to find solutions to environmental factors that affect urban plots. For example, gardens can be awkwardly shaped and shaded by buildings, and spaces between densely packed housing often creates wind funnelling. However, these issues can usually be resolved with careful planning and strategic positioning of seating areas and screening. Changes of level, leading to basements or first-floor rooms, can be integrated into a design with verandahs and raised or sunken terraces that offer different views of the garden, turning problems into virtues.

Some outdoor spaces are so small and restricted that designers envision the garden as a piece of set design to be viewed from a conservatory or glass-fronted room, with high quality landscaping and planting providing a captivating panorama. Green wall technology also enables vertical surfaces to be softened and covered in a tapestry of foliage and flowers, and they help to insulate buildings. Green walls are not easy to perfect and you may need professional advice to ensure their longevity and effectiveness.

Planting plans

Planting in urban designs tends to be minimalist in style and subservient to the architecture. Evergreen climbers are often used to clothe walls and plants are set around the periphery or marshalled into raised beds to blur the hard lines of the landscaping. Evergreen shrubs and trees add permanent structure, while herbaceous perennials and bulbs provide seasonal highlights. Specimen plants, such as multi-stemmed trees and large shrubs, often with their crowns raised, are carefully chosen for their distinctive characteristics to act as focal points. Maples, white-stemmed birches and the June berry, Amelanchier, are popular choices. Trees are usually purchased as established specimens to provide an immediate sense of maturity; large plants can be craned into sites where access is restricted by the specialist nurseries or contractors that provide them.

Decorating the space

There are a number of key elements that have come to characterise urban gardens. Inspiration for decorating the space may derive from historical precedents, perhaps resonating with elements of the house façade or the cultural background of the owner. More frequently, however, designs will feature modern or retro-styled sculpture or a frieze, usually recherché and understated to reflect the style of the architecture.

Water is a popular design feature in many urban gardens, either acting as a focal point or an incidental element. Again, the approach is architectural in style, with water contained in geometric forms rather than natural-looking pools. Water surfaces may be still and reflective, animated with films of water running over metal or stone surfaces, or agitated to create rippling effects and soothing sounds. Where more drama and excitement is intended, designers often include blades of water falling from a chute. All of these features are easily designed into small gardens and take up very little space.

Lighting the garden so it can be enjoyed at night is another critical consideration. Lighting schemes are best designed and built into your garden at the outset, to make use of all the opportunities available. Its use for safety and security not withstanding, creative lighting designs, whether subtle or dramatic, can completely transform a small space at night. Ideas include integrating lights into planters and seating at ground level so that the features seem to float, and illuminating blades of water, translating them into moving sculpture. Modern digital technology, outdoor plasma screens and other innovations offer further scope for dramatic creative displays.

Tables, seating, and containers should visually integrate with the design in both colour and style, with soft furnishings, such as colourful cushions or throws, creating flamboyant flourishes. Pressure of space may mean that you cannot include all the decorative elements or features you desire, so prioritise your needs and what is important to you aesthetically. The secret is to keep the styling simple so that your design looks uncluttered and effortless.

Creating roof gardens

With urban green and garden space always at a premium, burgeoning interest and enthusiasm for roof gardens looks set to remain an aspiration for town and city dwellers, as well as urban planners. Technological advances mean that social spaces and gardens can be more easily created on any elevated locality, from balconies through to extensive shared and public amenities.

Some garden and landscape designers specialise in the creation of these facilities and can deliver sophisticated solutions to overcome a wide range of challenges. Theoretically, any style of garden can be created, from minimalist and urban chic designs through to wildlife gardens and leafy jungles, with moving water and creative lighting adding to the imaginative possibilities. However, minimalist designs are logistically the easiest to create, as the containers and soil needed to support large numbers of plants can be heavy and may not be possible on roofs with low load-bearing capacities.

Planting needs to be chosen with care to ensure it will tolerate the strong sunlight and high winds on a roof, especially when plants are young and growth is most vulnerable. Specialist composts for roof gardens are now available, which are light in weight and contain sufficient nutrients and minerals to support even large shrubs and trees. For large schemes, plan in advance a suitable irrigation system that will help to guarantee the sustainability of the planting in the long term.

The wide range of green wall and roof growing systems available will help you transform your outdoor space. You can choose a simple scheme, composed of elements to make the space comfortable for entertaining or relaxing, with plants in pots providing interest and helping to create screening for privacy and wind protection. ‘Off- the-peg’ products, such as lightweight, aluminium-framed furniture and fibreglass planters, are ideal for these owner-generated schemes, but if you desire something more sophisticated, adventurous and permanent, secure the services of an experienced designer, as there are a whole host of issues to consider, not least the minefield of legal and planning issues inherent in most roof garden projects.

Weighty issues

Whether you are creating the garden yourself or employing a designer, check building regulations and ask the planning authority if there are any restrictions before embarking on any project. Also employ a qualified civil engineer to assess the suitability of the space for a garden or ensure that your designer does so. The load-bearing capacity will need careful assessment to check that the weight of paving, architectural structures and planting is within limits. Drainage systems and the installation of a water supply to feed plant irrigation systems also need to be addressed at the design stage. The safety of users is another prime consideration, with properly installed barriers needed to secure the development. Pots and planters can pose a danger if they are toppled in high winds, and they should be fixed to the floor to prevent injury or damage to property.


A sensitively designed front garden or entranceway can be just as chic as a rear garden. Designs have the potential to make an imposing and stylish statement to complement or appropriately contrast with the period style and façade of the property, perhaps also referencing the design at the back. Car parking can be integrated into the scheme, too, with a driveway or hardstanding that offers room for manoeuvring woven into a design that is both practical and attractive.

While paving over a front garden is considered unenvironmental because rainwater run-off collectively contributes to flash flooding, sand-jointed bricks or blocks, gravel, or one of the custom-made permeable products for driveways, offer good alternatives. Ground-cover planting, easy-care shrubs and seasonal flowers will help soften the landscape, with crevice plants, such as thyme, filling gaps between paving in areas where there is no car traffic. If considering parking the car off-road, check local legal regulations and the procedure for installing a drop kerb to enable entry.


Easy-care planting combines with a permeable gravel surface in a front garden by Cherry Mills


The clean design of this functional space presents various options for alfresco dining whatever the weather: under cover, shaded beneath a vine-covered pergola, or basking in full sun.



This rendered wall, inset with alcoves, creates a tangible sense of the room outdoors, while complementary furniture and cushions add to the homely feel of the composition.



Dramatic illumination of the water and landscaping transforms a feature that’s chic by day into a powerful statement at night.



The primeval ambience of an open fire complements the substantial cubed timber seats that form the centrepiece of this roof terrace.



The dining area on this roof garden makes the most use of the restricted space, with a built-in bench and slim, elegant contemporary table and chairs.



Toughened glass safety barriers on this coastal roof garden protect it from prevailing winds, while providing clear views of the panorama beyond.



This elegant design takes into account the need for shade on a roof, using a sail and slatted fencing to shield the lounge area and trees that cast dappled light over the whole garden.




An urban garden

The design brief for this garden behind a Grade 1 listed property in London was that ‘it should be like a Vermeer painting’. It had to also provide space for entertaining and be shielded from the windows of the terraced houses that overlook it. The designer was also keen to avoid a symmetrical, formal design, which is so often used when a nod to the past is called for. A 1.5m (5ft)-high sectional serpentine wall provides privacy when sitting in the garden, while also offering views over the top and through the gaps into the space behind, which features lighting and shade-tolerant plants. The integral bench is sculptural, yet accommodating, reducing the need for lots of free-standing furniture, and the palette of warm browns, pastel blues and off-white, in both the planting and hard materials, echo the work of the Dutch artist. Use of Portland and York stone help create the period ambience, and were also acceptable to the heritage authority involved in the project.


Acknowledged as one of the top ten designers in the UK by the Sunday Times and House and Garden Magazine, Andy Sturgeon has achieved six gold medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, including Best in Show in 2010, as well as a number of other professional awards. A versatile designer, his commissions range from small roof terraces in urban areas to the gardens of large country estates, with projects in the UK, Europe, Japan and other parts of Asia. His design practice is based in Brighton.



1 Serpentine wall and seating

The smooth, rendered wall with stone coping affords privacy, but allows views over and between to planting and lighting behind.

2 Shade-tolerant planting

Mature specimen of the wedding cake tree, Cornus controversa, with shrubby Nandina domestica, Libertia, ferns and hardy geraniums.

3 Planted paving

Arcs of block paving interplanted with mat-forming baby’s tears, Soleirolia soleirolii, which can be walked on, create a curved transition between the house and main garden.

4 Raised boundary

A sunny wall is raised using a slatted timber screen for privacy, while the evergreen climber, Trachelospermum, softens the brickwork with a leafy screen.

5 Artistic influences

Yellow ochre rendering on the raised bed walls and off-white York and Portland stone paving reference artist Vermeer’s colour palette.