Gardens can help us heal

Chicago Botanical Garden, occupational therapist, Gardens that Heal, Prescription for Wellness, Healthcare, Design, Landscape Architecture, hospitals, nursing homes, design

This past Spring I had the opportunity to attend the opening day of the eight-day Healthcare Garden Design Certificate of Merit Program at the exquisite Chicago Botanic Garden. Have you seen the garden?  For me, it was just what the Doctor ordered!

Our day began with total immersion in the world of landscape architecture and garden design in healthcare settings. Most of the presentations focused on hospital environments designed to provide solace for patients, their families, and staff.  The concept of healing gardens began in 1984 with the perspective that views to nature can have a positive influence on health outcomes and even have the potential to reduce medical mistakes from stressed-out caregivers.

I found the pictures of several children’s gardens to be most enchanting and creative. These fantasy retreats with both semi-private and private spaces included stepping stones, water features, telescopes, cubby-hole windows, hidden stone creatures (that staff often moved around periodically for fun!), a visitor’s log book, and figure 8 walking paths.  Where the services of occupational, recreational, or horticultural therapists were available, programs included “enabling” garden experiences with hands-on activities.  Examples from senior and nursing centers were also especially meaningful to me from my past work as an occupational therapist.

Perhaps we would agree as Master Gardeners that gardens, green spaces, and plants are almost always a good idea for all kinds of indoor and outdoor living spaces. Barriers often include the costs of installation and maintenance in addition to a lack of space.  Projects require answers to questions from:  Who will do the technical work of planning the design? to What volunteers will pull weeds for the next 10 years?  And what if the spaces change due to facility expansion, staffing changes, or they simply don’t work over time for the clients who frequent the area?  I realized how much common sense factors into the creation of a successful healthcare design project when viewing slides of gardens designed by an “artist” vs a “landscape architect” (the latter working with the staff of a particular facility).  The difference was striking:  a series of concrete settees along an angular path probably seemed beautiful to the artist and won accolades from hospital administrators.  But the space was cold, uninviting and difficult to navigate whether using mobility devices or simply trying to get from one part of the courtyard to the other.  Never minimize the value of a few folks walking through a design together and including potential users of the space.

Claire Cooper Marcus of http://www.healinglandscapes.com summed up the dilemma of poorly designed and maintained gardens in healthcare quite succinctly in the following statement:

“If they can’t keep the plants alive, how will they care for me?”

A better design philosophy came from Horticulture Therapist Teresia Hazen and Landscape Architect Brian Bainnson. The space should express the desire to:

“Sit. Stay.  Heal!”

Even local and national parks have given consideration to human elements in the design of public spaces in a movement called “Park Prescription.” The needs for safety, social interaction, comfortable walking, and even privacy are important for persons of all ages.  Specific design features can include:  resting places, landmarks, shade, protection from excess heat or cold, interesting visuals, and “no trash.”  The bottom line for public and healthcare garden spaces is to meet the needs of the persons of all ages and abilities with their constituents for whom it was designed with an eye on the future and measure of flexibility too.  The good news is that there’s research to support these efforts and funding available too if we but dig a little (pun intended) for it, persisting beyond the barriers.  We must continue what we do best lest we fall into what Richard Boo calls “Nature Deficit Disorder.”  No one wants that, right?  Such is the power of a little garden fix!

Julie, O.T.

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