London's Lillington & Longmoore Gardens Estate is the only housing estate in the country with a Green Flag - the independently assessed gold standard for green space management and maintenance.
Barely a mile from Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, the property estate is owned by Westminster City Council but managed by CityWest Homes, an arm's-length management organisation.
The driving force behind the raised standard of the area has been green space manager Alison Weller, who in her 13 years at the estate has transformed both the appearance and the purpose of the land.
"It was all grass and trees beforehand - everything else I have put in," she points out. "The result, I think, is to make it more garden-like. That is part of what I was employed to do.
"My background is in private landscapes, so I am less inclined towards big blocks of planting. I want to avoid the supermarket car park look. And I encourage people to use the grounds."
Neither the development nor the estate's current status happened overnight, she explains. "We were awarded a Green Pennant (for sites managed by voluntary and community groups) in 2002-03. The next year we tried and failed miserably at Green Flag - it was a big leap up," she says.
"We then left it a couple of years, had another go, and failed again. But it was all part of the learning experience. We took a lot from feedback reports." Eventually the estate gained its Green Flag status in 2007 and has held onto it since.
"Having a nice environment makes this a nice place to come home to," says Weller. "This is a green lung in the centre of London and the borough is willing to pay for nice estates. I have to work to a budget from them, which has been reasonable, but I look at other ways of funding it, too." These have ranged from mobile companies to National Lottery money.
Previously maintained by contractors, the grounds are now looked after by an in-house team, something unique for estates in the borough. Weller also manages three other estate grounds, which are maintained by contractors. "In theory we could do Green Flags there too, but I now realise how much work it takes," she says.
Weller's team at Lillington and Longmoore Gardens consists of one senior gardener, two part-time gardeners and one trainee, along with two volunteers. "We have an ex-theatre costumier, an ex-nurse ... What they have in common is an enthusiasm for gardening," she says.
The estate has made use of the Women Returners to Amenity Gardening Scheme, which provides recruits with two days' work experience a week for a year.
Katherine Beran, who previously went through the scheme, has continued to volunteer at the site, working 16 hours per week while pursuing an RHS certificate. "I am learning all the time," she says. "I'm not very academic so work here suits me better - though being practical training it doesn't get funding."
Enlightened attitudes to employment help make the case to Green Flag assessors, Weller adds. "CityWest has just got Investor in People status, which keeps you on your toes and moving forward. A lot of it we were doing anyway, but you can always improve on things like training - it's not an add-on. And if you are already working with the community, you are ticking that box, and the same goes for things like recycling and composting."
A residents' garden club helps out with one-off jobs like bulb planting or planting up the new wildlife pond. Residents are also regularly canvassed for their views on the current state and future plans for the grounds. "They can have a strong voice if they want, though that can be conflicting, in which case you have to go with the majority," says Weller. "But mostly they leave the day-to-day running in my capable hands."
Beran adds: "Most people say 'hi'. The occasional person will complain. Residents get upset if kids play football on the grass, though they don't cause much damage."
Hanging baskets were requested by the residents but these "are more high-maintenance", Weller points out. "We use self-watering ones, which are expensive to buy, but let you go four or five days without watering them. I looked into the cost of leaving them to contractors to deal with, but decided that with the glasshouse we could do it ourselves."
In addition to the 3x5m glasshouse on-site, cold frames and a potting shed allow staff to bring on a share of plants themselves, while the rest is sourced "through the trade".
Extensive planting in a variety of styles has helped bring a visual diversity to the estate - though they have to cope with what, by UK standards, are relatively dry and warm conditions. "I like to try different things, though we don't mollycoddle plants," Weller explains. "It has to look good all year round. There is usually something in flower."
The "wild beds", new this year, include exotics such as bananas, while herbs and vegetables also get a look-in. "Swiss chard looks nice all through winter," says Weller. "It's more for attractiveness than for eating. I wanted to grow pumpkins, but somebody kept taking them." For grow your own, the roof of a substation within the grounds will eventually be turned into allotments.
Participation in local initiatives such as Pimlico in Bloom help to maintain momentum. "It encourages residents to look after the balconies, which adds to the look of the place," says Weller, also mentioning that experience of planting here has been used in other estates.
Another direction that she is keen to encourage is wildlife-friendly gardening. "The residents were sceptical, but I have shown it can be done," she says. A pond, now in its second year, is home to frogs, toads and newts, and has been used as a focus for events run by London Wildlife Trust and for school study visits.
This year, the estate has chalked up another first, with the introduction of a beehive. "Some residents worry they will get stung," admits Weller. A trained beekeeper comes once a week to check on the hive.
The grounds are tranquil places, perhaps due to their near-invisibility from the surrounding streets. "This isn't a gated community - for a Green Flag, they have to be free access," says Weller. "There is some fly-tipping, which is cleaned up quickly."
Senior gardener Jim Myers adds: "Dogs are supposed to be kept on leads, although this is not easy to enforce all the time. There's the occasional turd, and some tree bark has been ripped and they hang dogs from branches." However, a firm policy towards antisocial dog behaviour on the part of managers has seen problem dogs confiscated from residents.
As well as meeting the Green Flag standards of cleanliness, Weller and her team also fulfil the marketing requirement via regular newsletters. Such is the standard of the grounds that they are also regularly included the annual London Open Squares & Gardens Weekend.
"You have to come up with new projects," explains Weller. "We have funding for a children's garden, fenced off to keep dogs out. It might be a flop if we can't get residents behind it, so we are encouraging them to organise it."
A HISTORY OF INNOVATION
The original Lillington Gardens is the most celebrated work of the Darbourne & Darke practice of architects and landscape planners. Created between 1964 and 1972, it consciously went against the vogue at the time for high-rise developments.
Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described it at the time as "the most interesting recent housing scheme in London". The extension, Longmoore Gardens, was completed in 1980.
As the name implies, accessible green space was central to the estate's design, and the horticultural inspiration can be seen in the blocks, which bear the names of famous gardens such as Wisley and Stourhead and landscape gardeners Repton and Henry Wise.
All the flats look into internal squares, with ground-floor flats having private gardens, and communal planting along "roof streets" at higher levels. Once termed the "hanging gardens of Pimlico", these had unfortunately been drastically cut back by the time of HW's visit to make room for scaffolding allowing major structural work.
For more insights into how to win a Green flag Green Flag judge Maria McCurdle's blog here.