Shine: Nurturing Through Nature, A Q&A with Landscape Architect Naomi Sachs

Last summer, I took myself on a weekend writing retreat to get a jump start on the final round of edits for my novel. I was looking for peace and quiet and uninterrupted hours. Reggie and I spent two lovely days at the home of Naomi Sachs who is a landscape architect. Her focus is on creating gardens that can help improve our health and well-being. When she said that she believes that these gardens can make the world a better place, there was no doubt in my mind that she was totally Shine-worthy!

I know many of you have restorative experiences in your own gardens. I’d love to hear how being closer to nature helps your well-being.

(The photos below are examples of what members of Naomi’s Therapeutic Landscape Network have created. )

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By trade you are a landscape architect. What got you interested in this profession? What still excites you about it? 

I’ve always felt a deep connection to nature, and I became aware of the therapeutic benefits of gardening for myself around 1996. At that time, I was thinking about going back to school for my Masters, and I stumbled upon an issue ofLandscape Architecture magazine devoted to healing gardens. It was one of those “lightbulb moments.” I chose UC Berkeley for my MLA (Master of Landscape Architecture) because many of the faculty had a strong reputation in social factors. What excites me about this profession? I really do think that landscape architects and designers can make the world a better place. The built environment affects our health and well-being on so many levels. To be a part of that as a designer is gratifying. And as the Director of Therapeutic Landscape Network (TLN), being able to provide information to help other designers make better places, and make places better, feels really good.

Can you explain a little about therapeutic landscapes?  Where would these type of landscapes be implemented?

In general, I make this distinction between landscapes and gardens: A landscape is any outdoor space – a national or state park, a farm, a parking lot, a superfund site… A garden is a designed space, and the word “garden” generally connotes a higher ratio of plants to “hardscape’ – paving, walls, etc. So I prefer the term “therapeutic garden,” since that indicates an outdoor (and sometimes even a planted indoor) space that is designed for a specific person or group of people, a specific site, and with a specific intended outcome of positive health and well-being through passive and/or active engagement with nature.

Some fundamental principles that are especially important for therapeutic gardens in healthcare, or for any healing garden, are the emphasis on safety and security; physical and emotional comfort; and a strong connection with nature. Everything about the design – the location of the garden, layout, plants, furnishings – should support the people using the garden for maximum physical and mental health benefits.

BHA Design, McKee Medical Center, Loveland, CO

It seems that therapeutic landscape architects not only have to know a lot about fauna and building materials, but they also need to become familiar with the needs of the people that they are designing for. For example, cancer patients might have different needs than Alzheimer’s patients. How would therapeutic landscape architects familiarize themselves with their end users’ requirements? 

Absolutely! Taking the needs of the “user” into account is paramount. And people using the space aren’t just the patients (or residents in the case of any sort of long-term care) – in fact, sometimes patients are too sick or frail to be able to go outside, but the visitors and staff can benefit immensely. There are certain guidelines that apply to ALL users, like that the garden have more “softscape” (plants) than “hardscape” (paving, walls, etc.), or that the garden should be safe, accessible, and comfortable. But then different populations – you mentioned people with cancer or Alzheimer’s – do have specific requirements. For example, people with cancer need a LOT of shade; they are more sensitive to smells and therefore heavily scented plants (which might be great in a regular therapeutic garden) are not advised; and it’s very important for the garden to be visible from indoors for those who are too weak, or too immune-suppressed, to go outside. In general, the more that people can view the garden from indoors, the greater the benefit.

Quatrefoil, Inc., Legacy Emanuel Medical Center Oregon Burn Center Garden Overview

Are therapeutic gardens something a home gardener can implement on a small scale? If so, do you have one or two suggestions for them? 

Anyone can have a “healing garden” at home, even if it’s just some planted pots on fire escape. Scale does not matter. What matters is to plant and build “whatever brings you joy.” A garden should feed the soul, and because each person is different, creating a healing garden for oneself really requires some introspection, rather than just running to Home Depot and plonking in some shrubs and perennials in front of the house’s foundation. That’s landscaping. What we want is a life-affirming garden that nurtures and sustains.

Roy-Fisher Assoc, Jupiter Medical Center, Jacqueline Fiske Healing Garden “Bamboo Room

Do you have any favorite stories you’d like to share about a person or group benefiting from one of your designs? 

Oh, so many! But I guess a favorite would be about a garden that I designed for an octogenarian couple, Mac and Kay, in Santa Fe, NM. They both had loved to garden, but due to Kay’s very limited mobility and Mac’s near-blindness, they had stopped. Their backyard was a wasteland of weeds and gravel that was impossible to navigate. We developed a plan with a smooth walking surface (colored concrete) with resting points along the way, as well as destinations to move toward; plants that provided shade, seasonal interest, sensory stimulation, and that attracted wildlife; and a design that they could also see and enjoy from inside the house. The week that the garden was finished, Kay – who had not been in her back yard for years, and who hardly went outside, period – ventured out with her walker, with Mac by her side. After that, they walked through the garden every day, several times a day. In good weather (which in Santa Fe is most of the time) they walked to their apple tree and sat side by side in its shade, just looking out and commenting on the darting hummingbirds, or what was blooming, or how much water the mossrock boulders had collected in the afternoon’s rainstorm. After a few months, they began walking on the sidewalk on the street as well. Kay had gotten strong enough to venture out of their small back yard garden and take on the more challenging slope of our street. This was especially encouraging because it meant that she had the opportunity to interact with neighbors, thereby broadening a social circle that had gotten pretty darn narrow. This was the most rewarding design job I’ve ever had.

Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, Clare Tower Roof Garden, Chicago, IL (photographer Scott Shigley)

What is the Therapeutic Landscapes Network and why did you decide to start this organization? 

The Therapeutic Landscapes Network (TLN) is a knowledge base and gathering space about healing gardens, restorative landscapes, and other green spaces that promote health and well-being. We are an international, multidisciplinary community of designers, health and human service providers, scholars, and gardeners. Our focus is broad, but our primary emphasis is on evidence-based landscape and garden design (design based on research rather than just intuition or design trends) in healthcare settings, because no other organization is working in this area. Which is why TLN was born. It was clear that designers and others in this field needed access to information – references, related organizations, lists of exemplary built works, etc. – and to other professionals working in this realm. Rather than try to publish something like a bibliography that would be out of date before it even went to print, a website seemed like a better idea. That was in 1999, and we’ve been building ever since. Our membership is now almost 2,000 on our mailing list, and we have over 3,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter, plus a growing membership on our new Linked In group.

Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio, Shore Country Day School

What do you see as the future for therapeutic landscapes? 

I see more and more healthcare facilities incorporating, or trying (alas, not always successfully!) to incorporate, “healing gardens” or other types of outdoor places of respite. This is very encouraging. LEED for Healthcare (originally the Green Guide for Healthcare) and the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) both have “human health and well being” components in their guidelines. I’ve been working with the Environmental Standards Council on changes to the Guidelines for Design and Construction of Health Care Facilities, and it looks like they will accept our recommendations for more and better access to nature – this would be a huge step, because it becomes a requirement rather than just a suggestion.

Next steps are to work toward a set of standards, and certification, so that healthcare facilities follow certain criteria. Right now, a hospital might call an airshaft with a bench and a potted plant a “healing garden.” Clare Cooper Marcus and I are writing a book (to be published by John Wiley and Sons in 2013) that will have a list of guidelines for creating true therapeutic gardens that promote health, and these guidelines will, we hope, become benchmarks for certification. And in the general culture, I think that people are re-discovering the importance of connecting with nature. Sustainability, the “locavore” movement, edible and green schoolyards…people know in their hearts that they need nature, that being in and connecting to nature feels good. People are starting to demand this in sectors beyond just the private, and that’s very exciting.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that I’ve not included here? 

I invite everyone to visit our website and blog, and to sign up for our free monthly e-newsletter. And all are welcome on our various social network sites. Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to talk with you, Jackie!

Read past stories on SHINE here. If you or anyone you know should be featured in SHINE, please let me know: contact  {at}   jacquelincangro  DOT   com.
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14 comments

  1. i spent 2 hours going through her website and then all the links! gardening is one of my favorite “healing” things to do. in houston, we have some of the most famous hospitals in the world and the gardens there are certainly used by patients and families for comfort. Sweet, sweet showcase, Jackie.

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    1. I’m so glad this post spoke to you, Joy! I hope you got some great ideas for your garden.
      I’m not surrounded by as much nature as you, but just going to Prospect Park for a few minutes invigorates me.

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  2. Wow, Joy, I’m honored that you spent so much time on the website and that you got a lot out of it. Did you find the birdsong audio? It’s on the homepage:) You do have great hospitals in Houston. I may be pursuing my PhD in Architecture at TAMU next fall, and if so, I look forward to seeing them in person. If you have any particular favorites, do let me know. TBM, here’s a link to my design website that has a couple of pictures of “Kay’s garden.” Just click on “Projects” under the menu.

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  3. I think this is the kind of thing my mom wanted to do when she became a landscape architect, but she got stuck drawing up parking lots!

    Now she’s a Master Gardener and has let landscape architecting fall to the wayside. It’s too bad she didn’t have people around her that could help her see the possibilities!

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    1. Now i know where you get your green thumb! The photos of your garden always look so inviting.
      On the other hand, I look at a plant and the leaves shrivel.

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  4. The stick-enclosed space mentioned above is part of the Inspiration Garden at Shore Country Day School in Beverly, MA. My firm, JMMDS, designed this as a memorial garden, inspired by the school’s mascot, the beaver. We created a beaver “waterway”–the concrete path swept to look like eddys and rivulets; the beaver “dam” made of stone and black locust logs; the beaver “tunnel” made of white cedar logs (that looked gnawed!); and the beaver lodge which can hold 15 students for outdoor classes, but also acts as a contemplative place on campus. Plants are all New England natives that you’d find in a beaver meadow. Check out our website for more children’s gardens, cemetery landscapes, and the Toronto Music Garden inspired by the First Cello Suite by Bach, among others.

    Thanks, Naomi, for including us in this lovely post!

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    1. Julie, this is such a treat to have you give this background on the garden at the Shore Country Day School. I bet the students love to explore these spaces. You’ve provided them with a great opportunity to appreciate nature. Thank you for stopping by!

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