WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.Nature’s healing powers are no secret. Whether ‘taking the waters’ in a natural hot spring or just strolling through a nice garden, people who are ill—or ill at ease— seem to know instinctively that natural beauty can help. But when it comes to designing a true ‘healing garden’ instinct isn’t enough. A pioneering course now in session at the Chicago Botanic Garden aims to raise the profile, and the quality, of a cutting-edge specialty: healthcare garden design.
For Chicago Public Radio, Monique Parsons reports.
It was the driveway that first troubled Jonathan Bohlander. The landscape architect had been asked to design a garden at Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn. Cars approaching the main entrance motored right by the cancer wing.
BOHLANDER: The infusion room is where the children receive chemotherapy, and they can spend as much as two to up to 8 hours in there, it all just depends on the level of their illness, but they could be in there for a long time, so they wanted something that was a positive distraction outside the windows, give them something to look at.
Bohlander got the hospital to reroute the driveway.
SOUND: Flowing water
Now, sick kids look out on a rushing waterfall, where prairie grasses sway and frog-shaped fountains playfully target each other with arcing spurts of water?. It’s a place where young patients can dig in the dirt and play. Families can reflect. And staff members can catch a breath?. The newly-designed garden is a sign of expertise, not ego. Bohlander’s design was inspired by a ground-breaking healthcare garden design course at Chicago Botanic Garden. The latest session wraps up this week.
The 18 men and women gathered in a green-walled botanic garden conference room aren’t your weekend gardeners out to cultivate a green thumb. There’s a critical care nurse here. Some nursing home administrators. Landscape architects. Therapists. And academics. They’re here to study how gardens affect health, and how to design landscapes for hospitals, nursing homes and other medical centers. Marni Barnes, a landscape designer from California, is one of the instructors. Healing gardens aren’t buzzwords, she says. Details matter: a lot of designers don’t realize , for example, that a person pulling an I.V. pole could trip on a standard sidewalk joint, which is one quarter wide.
BARNES: So In a hospital you really need to lay the concrete, and go back in a with a saw where you get a straight line, no V, it’s only an one eighth of an inch wide, and the wheels go over it much more easily. So it’s right down to what size is the control joint in the concrete up to access to the sky access to birds, the ephemeral.
Barnes wrote a book on healing garden design with Clare Cooper Marcus, a retired Berkeley professor who also teaches here. They showed students what works: wide, even pathways. Plant variety. Raised planter beds so people in wheelchairs can garden. Chairs that can be easily arranged for conversation. And what doesn’t work: meandering paths that can confuse people with dementia. Memorial plaques that make gardens feel like cemeteries. And abstract art—even if it’s meant to evoke nature and hope. Barnes says a sculpture garden near a Duke University hospital cancer wing was especially problematic.
BARNES: The birds were made of metal, and they had very pointy beaks, and they had marbles for eyes that would light up at night and they had big claws that were holding onto things.
Patients found the images scary, so the hospital pulled out the metal birds and redesigned the garden. Barnes hopes to inspire her students to do better. This week, they visit the Marianjoy rehab center in Wheaton and the Schwab rehab center in Chicago, both held up as models of good healing garden design. On Tuesday, Leslie Sackett led a tour of the botanic garden’s enabling garden for people with special needs.
SACKETT: And then we have our raised lawn, that’s a part of the classroom area. a lot of times when people are wheelchair users..they don’t have the opportunity to get aback on the lawn.
Students took notes and photos, fingered plants and eyeballed the construction of plant boxes and specially-designed garden tools. Marianne Bifulco , a critical care nurse from New Jersey, says the instructors here have inspired her to pursue her interest in design.
BIFULCO: They all have years of experience in the field. It’s such a new field that there’s a lot that has to be done and having come from the hospital background I see all the time what has to be done and isn’t being done. It would be nice to see more of this implemented.
Knowing how to design a healing garden is one thing. Selling costly landscaping to hospital administrators is another. The Chicago Botanic Course wraps up this week with a seminar on another useful garden tool: marketing. Those passionate about them argue that a healing garden isn’t just a nice idea. It’s good business: patients heal faster, staff like the environment, and more welcoming hospitals enjoy a competitive edge.
For Chicago Public Radio, I’m Monique Parsons