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Healing Gardens Make Hospital Stays a Walk in the Park

By Paula Melton

This article originally appeared on BuildingGreen.com.

April 30, 2012
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The therapeutic
Courtesy AECOM, Perkins+Will/HGA
The therapeutic "Discovery Garden" is the centerpiece of an expansion at Stanford's Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “hospital”? A lush, sun-dappled garden buzzing with hummingbirds, or a cold, institutional interior? For those of us who thought of the latter, the therapeutic landscaping movement is aiming for a change—and it’s finding more and more synergies with medical science, sustainable design, and the budgetary realities of the healthcare industry.

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What makes a garden “therapeutic”?

Both controlled experiments and observational studies have proven that access to nature can relieve stress and pain and speed recovery. Even a landscape painting or a view out a window can contribute to well-being and measurably improve outcomes—but newer experiments show that healing and biophilia are much more strongly correlated when patients inhabit natural outdoor spaces, leading designers to look increasingly to “healing gardens.”

As healing gardens become more popular and hospitals begin marketing them as amenities, there is an important distinction to be made between conventional landscaping and a therapeutic garden, explains Robin Guenther, FAIA, sustainable healthcare design leader at Perkins+Will. A healing garden goes out of its way to “connect to that primal biophilia,” says Guenther, noting some of the key features that make this work:

Contrast: “People are trying to create a sense of contrast with the surrounding landscape,” says Guenther, but the garden itself should also contain a great variety of colors, textures, fragrances, and sounds to better mimic nature and to add elements of surprise and discovery.

Sensory experience: A healing garden also engages all five senses, explains Matt Maranzana, senior associate and landscape architect at HOK in St. Louis. The sound of running water or wind chimes and the ability to touch plants, dirt, and water (a garden feature often balanced against fears of spreading infection) also decrease stress.

Multiple functions: “You never know who’s going through which emotion,” Maranzana says. Some people may be celebrating a birth while others are mourning a loved one. His colleague Michelle Ohle, associate at HOK Planning Group, notes that accommodating multiple uses can be a challenge—but a fun one. “You learn some of the little tricks. When you don’t have a lot of space, do vertical planting to create topographic changes.” Labyrinths are popular for defining a compact, contemplative space, she says, while an amphitheater creates a public multiuse area.

Distractions: “When they’re well done, they really allow people to be transported from their current experience,” says Guenther. Flowers that attract birds and butterflies (but not bees) can provide fodder for either quiet contemplation or conversations. Educational features like interpretive placards are also gaining popularity.

Movement: “You’re not just walking out the door and plunking yourself in a chair,” Guenther explains. A therapeutic landscape “encourages you to walk through it or push somebody in a wheelchair through it; the idea of a journey makes it a destination.” Gardens can also be used for physical therapy, notes Ohle.

Copyright 2012 by BuildingGreen Inc.

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