House builders have always aimed to squeeze as many homes as possible into empty sites, but now they've seen the wisdom of creating breathing space beyond the front door.
While developers have turned their backs on box-like homes, preferring instead to add nooks, crannies, gables and even clock towers, it seems that planting a few shrubs isn't good enough either. Now only full-blown, and preferably world-breaking, landscaping will do.
A new world record for the largest tree to be transplanted, has been set at Winwick Park, a Countryside Properties site in Warrington. The 58ft London plane tree, imported from Brussels, forms the centrepiece of a new square within the 300-home development built on an 85-acre brownfield site which was formerly home to Winwick hospital. This week, former pop star-turned-horticulturist Kim Wilde, who has been involved in the project since its conception, planted the tree as part of a wider landscaping project of 38 acres of parkland.
Winwick Park's layout is designed to reflect the architecture of surrounding Cheshire villages with features such as soft red bricks, half-timbering, decorative tile-hanging and colour-washed render in properties priced between £154,950 to £315,000, but it is trees that are causing maximum excitement. Robin Hoyles of Countryside explains: "The entrance to Winwick Park is stunning. There is a formal, landscaped tree-lined boulevard with grand Regency-style houses leading to this magnificent, record-breaking tree as the centre piece of a new square at the heart of the development."
The tree is approximately 60 years old with a trunk girth of 3ft, and is expected to live for 250 years, by which time it will have reached 150ft. It joins the many mature trees the development cleverly manages to retain, but 80 Belgian semi-mature trees are also being planted.
Developers are frequently accused of damaging the environment through their work, but many now work in partnership with environmental and heritage organisations to ensure minimum damage and maximum restoration of both buildings and landscapes. At Repton Park in Chigwell, Essex, Crest Nicholson has been working closely with English Heritage and the London Wildlife Trust since the early stages of their 235-acre project.
Repton Park was previously a psychiatric sanatorium which had lain unused for many years. Situated on the brow of a hill, the site incorporates around 50 acres of ancient woodland and 95 acres of open parkland, ponds, pasture and historic gardens. These were designed in 1789 by the landscape architect Sir Humphrey Repton for the owner, James Hatch, of what was then called the Claybury Estate.
Architecture and landscaping on the site bears careful reference to the past: one important addition is the release of three-storey villas set around two main squares, in keeping with the Victorian roots of the former Claybury Hospital. Beneath their steep gables, large sash windows and wrought-iron balconies overlook formally landscaped squares. Sir Humphrey coined the term "landscape gardening" and was the successor to the better-known Capability Brown.
The development, which has an estimated sales value of £170m, is a mix of new and refurbished Victorian apartments, mews houses and town houses. Repton's grounds are being restored with the help of horticulturist Mark Wheeler, who says: "When creating the formal squares we wanted to complement the existing architecture and the natural environment." This entaileda weekend in Europe seeking semi-mature trees of suitable stature to complement the environment and the formal setting.
The London Wildlife Trust managed the site when it was a nature reserve and have been working with the developers to preserve and create its ecological status. They are encouraged by the developers' efforts, but admit that this is not always the case: "Traditionally we're often on opposite sides of the fence, but they're pretty enlightened in this instance and between them, the local council and ourselves we've been working together to secure open space as new parkland for wildlife and people," says Ralph Gaines of the Trust.
Mr Gaines believes that surrounding developments with high-quality open space "helps developers sell houses" and they hope to use the project "as an example for other regeneration schemes around London". The Trust has secured 37 hectares of open space at Braeburn Park, Crayford, Bexley which they will manage as a nature reserve bordering a 230-unit development. They also hope to recruit new residents as volunteers to help manage the site.
The new residents at Castle Village in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, are certainly enjoying the site where developers Ward have restored disused sunken and Japanese gardens as the setting for a retirement community of 140 cottages, apartments and bungalows. The site, previously Glaxo Wellcome's headquarters, consisted of modern laboratories and agricultural buildings centred around a Grade II-listed mansion house, empty since 1992.
The majority of buildings have been demolished, but the mansion house and existing garden areas have been restored to provide a mature setting for the retirement community with prices starting from £175,000 for a two-bedroom apartment.
Residents enjoy an array of shrubs, plants and trees including Japanese maples, a great monkey puzzle, japonicas, Oriental rhododendrons and magnolias, with year-round maintenance.
New resident Charles Henry Burgess says: "I owned a substantial house with a large garden that was proving too much, so I was delighted to hear that the homes at Castle Village were set in 30 landscaped acres. I will no longer have to worry about maintenance and upkeep.All that is taken care of for me."
Crest Nicholson's Repton Park: 01442 219921.
London Wildlife Trust: 020 7261 0447.
Ward's Castle Village: 01442 872129.