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Case Study #2


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Healing and well being gardens   

Australia’s earliest cultivated gardens performed a utilitarian role growing staple foods like potatoes and cabbages.   Once food was successfully secured, decorative gardens become common place.  Emphasis was placed on recreating an idealised English landscape within Australia.  Little emphasis was placed on landscapes fostering spiritual wellbeing.

Over two hundred years on, we are more aware of the interrelationship between physical and mental wellbeing, and understand that nature can play an important role in fostering these states.  Throughout many countries a new landscape form has emerged, the healing garden.  There are an incredible array of healing landscapes throughout North America and the United Kingdom: gardens for terminally ill children and adults, for the elderly, for dementia sufferers, homeless women, psychiatric patients and reconciliation gardens for indigenous people.

These gardens fulfil a number of roles.  They provide a green and natural outdoor environment for patients who are frequently exposed to clinical institutional surrounds.  Not only are gardens important for patients, they also play a role in supporting carers, family and members of staff.  

In the United Kingdom a number of cancer support centres were established at the bequest of garden writer, Maggie Keswick.  Keswick died of breast cancer and her wish was for her partner, noted landscape designer, Charles Jencks, to set up a series of centres which provide a sanctuary away from clinical hospital environments.  A number of gardens were established in Scotland, Keswick’s country of birth. 

The most recent landscape to be developed, is by noted English designer, Dan Pearson, at Charing Cross Hospital, London.  Located on a busy site Pearson was commissioned to create a series of healing spaces.  A noisy road is visually buffered by a mass planting of over 100 birches, Betual albosinesis var. septentrionalis.  These trees with coloured bark are underplanted by the highly fragrant, Sarcocca, known as winter box.  The arrival sequence through this forest helps calm a patient’s fears on their way to the cancer centre.  Pearson has created a series of courtyards which can be used by patients and staff.  He notes the character of the landscape will be “quite a calm, green space, not a riot of colour even in Summer…”.

Healing gardens have an important role to play in comforting the sick and dying, however wellness gardens which offer a place of spiritual and physical renewal, prior to becoming ill, could greatly benefit the community.  For the majority, contemporary western life seems to be endless treadmill of work, reading and responding to emails, shopping, child rearing.  The list goes on.  Despite earlier promises of labour saving devices with new technologies, our leisure time has been reduced.  Stress related illnesses are on the rise.

Many people are recognising the importance of introducing exercise and stress reduction into their routines.  Meditation, yoga, tai chi. Giving themselves time to slow down to recharge themselves.  Why not create landscapes within our urban and suburban landscapes which could complement these activities and act to restore us? 

In California, a group of people have banded together to create a non-profit group that aims to develop gardens focussed on renewal and healing.  To them, wellness gardens focus on the ability of human interactions with nature to restore physical and spiritual balance. 

They point out, that the World Health Organisations describes health “as a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

The aim of wellbeing gardens is to return people to a quiet contemplative space.  Wellbeing spaces fulfil a role that for many, the church once played.  Christian churches were quiet restful places, yet disconnected from nature.

Increasing scientific evidence points to the role that exposure to vegetation can play in human well being.  It can increase recovery time in hospital as well as reduce the incidence of crime. 

While not designed as a wellness garden, The Chinese Garden of Friendship, in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, contains many characteristics of a wellness garden.  Located adjacent to Sydney’s China Town, the walled garden creates a verdant oasis within the city.

The walls, sound of running water and dense plantings carefully screen out most of the noise and sense of being located in a bustling central business district.  As cities, including Canberra become denser there will be a need for places like this.  Both Chinese and Japanese garden styles share many common characteristics:  emphasis on plant forms and texture over colour, symbolic representation of nature, asymmetry, general absence of straight lines and use of water bodies.  Both forms eschews lawn and ornamental flower beds, unlike Australian design.

The Chinese Garden is based on the Taoist principles of yin and yang – balance in opposites.  Within the garden noisy waterfalls are contrasted with serene expanses of water filled with gold fish.  Tall bamboo groves are complemented by rounded stones which emphasise the horizontal ground plane. 

The Chinese Garden provides places to rest and contemplate, either on rocks or on seats within sheltered pavilions, or the opportunity to wander through the landscape.  By clever design and placement of rocks and planting, the visitor feels like they are journeying through a greatly varied landscape, whereas it is in fact a reasonably small site. 

The overall colour effect is green, well known for its calming properties.  In colour therapy, green is regarding as a calming colour.  According to Romy Rawlings, the author of Healing gardens, green allays anxiety and brings a sense of peace and wellbeing. 

The senses are tapped into at the garden.  The calming vision of massed green vegetation and serene water bodies, the whisper of wind through bamboo, water falling, small birds flittering in the undergrowth and the smell of moist soil.

As well as providing contemplative places for citizens, wellness gardens could also provide areas for tai-chi or yoga lessons in the warmer months and other associated communal activities. 

Why not tap into the powerful benefits of nature, and provide spaces which help people recharge and deal with the stresses of modern living?  Wellness gardens could be included in the redevelopment of former school sites and in our dense urban areas.  Why not bite the bullet and convert part of the underused Haig Park into a wellness garden?


Gardening Australia Fact Sheet
Creating Your Own Backyard Healing Garden
Karen L. Kennedy

Rawlings, Romy: Healing gardens
Willow creek press

Romy Rawlings is a landscape architect and garden designer in Warwickshire, England. She has a strong personal belief in complementary medicine and has extensively studied the application of alternative therapies in practical garden situations.

Sustainable Urban Landscapes

Healing Gardens Link


Churchill Fellowship pdf Report on design of therapeutic landscapes

Healing Gardens
Co-authored by Claire Cooper Marcus, Pub: Wiley & Sons 1999

Restorative Gardens: The Healing Landscape
by Nancy Gerlach Spriggs
Yale University Press 1998

(Spriggs is a nurse and Landscape Architect)

The Healing Landscape, Therapeutic Outdoor Environments
Martha Tyson Pub:
McGraw Hill 1998
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