At Home with Growing Old AHWGO-Homes

Landscape Designers as Healers

by Susanne Stadler | October 28th, 2013 | 2 Comments | Our Homes

Just as those in the medical profession can treat and heal so can designers”.


Most of us have experienced the importance of nature in our well being, looking out over the vast ocean, watching a humming bird buzz around a fragrant bush, harvesting tomatoes in our backyard.

How can we design for these moments when we need it most, when our natural environment has shrunk to a hospital garden, the courtyard of a senior residence or a view out the window? UC Berkeley Professor Emerita Clare Cooper Marcus is an internationally renowned scholar who has studied the relationship and the “fit” between people and their environments for many years. She spoke at our last salon about how to design for those healing qualities of nature with a focus on frail elder and people with dementia. The talk was based on her intensive research that has just been released in her latest book “Therapeutic Landscapes” – co-authored with landscape architect Naomi Sachs)- a beautiful and practical guide with many illustrations to healing and restorative landscapes.

The lessons Clare shared with us, some intuitive, others more surprising opened our mind how every bit of outdoor space when truly designed for its users, can bring them joy and thus improve their daily wellbeing. Many senior residences for example provide ‘together’ spaces outside but forget that everybody needs alone time, away from the daily routines of communal living. Easily movable seating allows for creating such personal spaces. A destination visible from the beginning of the path and a garden readily accessible and visible from the inside motivates people to venture out. Some frail elders look down as they walk slowly, paying attention to the path, having lower plants that are richly textured and of various colors are a garden for them. Places of healing are not just designed for residents but also for staff and visitors. A private, outdoor garden for staff gives the desperately needed respite from the responsibility and emotional drain of care giving. A carefully designed garden is a conversation trigger and invites visitors to stay longer. Room for self initiated activities, such as a game of croquet creates a place for children visitors who contribute their youthfulness to healing.

Clare’s work is deeply rooted in evidence-based research and her own experience is at the core of this evidence. Her earlier book ‘Iona Dreaming’ is an account of the healing power of her Scottish refuge, the island of Iona. During her cancer treatment at Kaiser Walnut Creek resting under the heritage valley oaks within the garden-courtyard of the hospital gave her strength. I hope that her book will carry her message far.