When was the last time you thought, and I mean really thought, about that unassuming patch of green you walk by every day or that row of trees outside your house? To a busy Londoner rushing from one appointment to the next, these bits and pieces of green can easily fade into the steely grey cityscape. And yet, if you look closely, you can find signs of plant and animal life everywhere.
As an introduction to the (Un)Urban strand of the UCL Global Citizenship Programme, we were asked to do exactly that: become aware of the natural space we were in (in our case, Gordon Square, a public garden located in the centre of UCL faculty buildings and Halls of Residence) and discuss its purpose, aesthetics and atmosphere.
In groups of three, we set out to wander the garden’s meandering paths, cross the wide lawn and walk beneath lush canopies of leaves, heavy with fresh rain.
With thick bushes and tall trees blocking out any outside sights and sounds, Gordon Square revealed itself to be a true oasis – a sequestered retreat from hectic campus life, the ideal place to stroll, read, chat and eat. It is no secret that deepening your connection with nature can make you happier, more relaxed and more resilient to the pressures of urban life. But was this really nature?
We quickly realised that this supposedly ‘natural’ space was just as purposefully designed and carefully maintained as any other public space in the heart of London. The grass was cut evenly, trees were strategically planted at certain spots and the fences that bordered the paths were small but impossible to ignore. The fact that Gordon Square was covered in greenery and not concrete did not mean that it was any less artificial.
My friend Anne aptly mentioned the concept of ‘second nature’ which, rather than being left untouched and free to grow without intervention, is constructed and groomed by humans to serve a specific purpose.
This phenomenon, of course, does not necessarily result in grave exploitation or destruction of natural habitats. Gordon Square, for instance, features a fruit composter and a vegan café, encouraging the garden’s users to commit to the protection of the environment.
Apart from this, cultural, artistic and historical concerns seem to have played a significant role in the development of Gordon Square. The busts of poet Rabindranath Tagore and WWII agent Noor Inayat Khan create a quiet, commemorative ambiance. A sign explicitly instructs visitors not to play ball games or bring their dogs to Gordon Square: this is a place of remembrance and contemplation.
While vibrant university life continues outside the garden gates, Khan’s and Tagore’s faces remain unmoved. Carved into bronze, their distinct features remind us of the lasting impact that every individual can make on the course of our history and the heritage of our world.
So next time you find yourself in Gordon Square, don’t just rush to your next class. Instead, look around for a bit, take in the moment and linger just a little longer.