Heal the Landscape and Ourselves

Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoon / MLive
Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan / MLive

“Healing must begin with a discussion about woundedness,” said Todd Degner, Affil. ASLA, in a moving and powerful presentation at the ASLA 2016 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. By sharing both images of himself as a child and the story of his own trauma, Degner recalled the place that was his refuge. The canopy of a spirea hedge became a fortress, a place that called to him and helped him heal himself, and “smelled like hope.” Degner, along with Naomi Sachs, ASLA, founder of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network; Jerry Smith, FASLA, Smith/GreenHealth Consulting; and Virginia Burt, FASLA, Virginia Burt Designs, provided research, guidelines, and emotional anecdotes to inspire landscape architects and designers to heal ourselves and our landscapes.

As designers, “stories of the wounded fall in our lap without resolution,” said Degner. While we cannot know the outcome of these stories, they entreat designers to be mindful – to be merciful and healing. Through a simple landscape devise, landscape architects and designers can transfer deeper truths and offer paths to healing.

Many among us have sought out landscapes for solace for our own traumas or personal struggles, including Sachs, as she shared with the audience. She also shared research to help designers who may be met with resistance to their “best intentions,” as elements are cut through value engineering or tight budgets.

For example, a 5-minute-a-day walk in a natural environment can lead to decreased levels of depression and stress. For children with ADHD, 20-minutes in a park can result in fewer symptoms with results similar to a dose of Ritalin.

Even if a person is unwilling or unable to be active in a natural setting, studies prove just living near nature and trees can have such effects as better test scores for girls and decreased instances of domestic violence. Access to nature simply makes people exhibit “more pro-social behavior.”

Healing Garden / Edgerton Hospital and Health Services
Healing Garden / Edgerton Hospital and Health Services

But, as Smith reminds us, it isn’t just the individual that needs healing, but also our landscapes. Working through a process of “evidence based design,” landscape architects can convince clients “there is a reason we want to do these things, it’s not just a matter of taste.”

There has been a paradigm shift in how we talk about our landscapes. It is no longer enough to conserve, but we have to regenerate the land through performative landscapes in order to start healing. There are a number of initiatives to help us get there. The Sustainable SITES Initiative™ (SITES®) has taken “deep dive into sustainability,” and added to the list of the usual considerations of a place like water, soil, and plants, goals like the health and well-being of humanity.

Humans play a role in healing the landscape, and, in turn, it can heal us. If we are to accept this mutual responsibility, we must approach our designs holistically, and, as Burt said, with “intention.” Designs must acknowledge the emotional response that so often comes from plants. Smell can be a deep trigger for memory. For Burt, this pursuit of intention is spiritual and leads her design process: “where intention goes, energy flows.”

For the University Hospital Schneider Healing Garden adjacent to the Seidman Cancer Center (SCC) in downtown Cleveland, she created a healing garden at its front door. Starting with input from staff and inspiration from poetry, she arrived at a garden where the transformative process of healing can begin. The garden offers patients and staff places of quiet and contemplation, and sensory experiences that elevate and transport.

Schneider Healing Garden / Brad Feinknopf
Schneider Healing Garden / Brad Feinknopf

As Degner mentioned, healing is a process, and there is no quick fix. A therapeutic garden, no matter how perfectly designed, will not immediately solve all our woes.

“Healing begins with hospitality,” from our family, friends, and the professionals who help us heal. Designers can offer hospitality, too – a place that “covers, protects, and is in a setting abounding with life.” Degner offered this benediction: “say ‘yes’ to the call to help wounded people and wounded landscapes.” It is the calling of landscape architecture.

One thought on “Heal the Landscape and Ourselves

  1. Randal Scott Romie, ASLA 10/24/2016 / 10:37 am

    Having invested myself in understanding the healing part of the landscape, this article is one of the best that I have come across its conciseness and accuracy. In a talk that I presented at the NCASLA conference last year, one of the goals of the presentation was to have the Landscape Architect see that they were called their profession, and that the work of an LA is also a vocation, and I suggest, a ministry.

    Healing begins, as I learned from designing a 12-step meditation trail, with Step One: admitting we have a problem. I believe that time spent in nature is a safe space, the earth surrounds us with positive energy, or an energy that maybe causes us to be uncomfortable encouraging us to step one. Healing is not a rosy path, and yet, in in some way, is a path of Roses with more thorns than flowers. Deep down, I believe, we all want to heal and to resurrect, just as we want to see the Roses flower. In this Nature becomes a revelation of the Divine.

    The connection to Nature, described in this article, must be embraced by the LA as from day one we learned about being “Stewards of the Land.” Stewardship is responsibility and leadership. A servant leadership with a humble understanding that the earth is much bigger than we are, and the earth and sun, in a universal and gentle balance, allow us to live. Healing is a spiritual act. LAs must transform the physical to acknowledge the spiritual. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “”We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings (struggling with) a human experience.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s