Healing Architecture / The hospital-garden that helps healing

It would be hard to remember how many times I have wondered if there was a straight relationship between human behavior and architecture, if there is a direct relationship between the shape of the space and how we get along in the atmosphere that this space evokes.

Unfortunately, along my architecture studies, I haven’t found topics related to this, what is today called neuro-architecture, so I had to wait until I was done with school to fetch the chance to research and go deeper in this wonderful field.

Therefore, I spend my spare time looking for examples that demonstrate this invisible buttangible relationship between space and spectator. Let me explain. There are scientific evidences regarding this connection between what we do and how we do it, but few of these evidences have been taken as principles to design spaces. Moreover, we are nowadays analyzing spaces that show this connection as today’s example.

Few months ago, I ran into the Prouty Garden, part of the Children Hospital of Boston. A place that is said to help young patients heal, giving us a great example of this link between neuroscience and architecture (landscape architecture in this particular case).

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Thanks to a YouTube video shared last August 2011, we got to know Aidan’s case, a three-year-old kid who had just received a heart transplant. His grandmother wrote in her blog that her grandson loved going to the Hospital’s garden to feed the birds and squirrels. This encouraged the child to leave his room every day and enjoy the beauty of the nature, the adventure of feeding his senses.

It was this very garden in Boston the one Aidan loved. Located in a rather centric area of the city, the Hospital has a C shaped floorplan, which seems to hug the garden. With up to seven different green areas, this park is well know for being a meeting point for squirrels and birds thanks to its fountain and large trees.

Architects, psychologists, and doctors have shown their interest in the relationship that, as Aidan’s mum shared, the patients have with the garden. As Clare Cooper Marcus writes “it is one of the most successful gardens of the country”.

Thanks to this hospital’s garden, scientists have found the starting point of researches that were to find if, as supposed, gardens and other natural environments would help with the healing process.

It may sound logical that clean air, sunshine, and the smell of nature are fundamental factors to an enriching experience of our atmosphere, but now, thanks to these studies (like the ones done for the environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich), we hereby know that observing natural events can reduce the recovering timeframe after surgeries, infections, or other health issues.

In the number 10 of the Spanish journal Mind and Brain (focused on pain) there are several articles explain the different mechanisms the body has to feel pain and how, due to the interaction of external cues (natural or chemical), this sensation may increase or decrease, varying the amount and kind of neurotransmitters that take place in the synaptic activity.

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Thanks to the experiments done in similar locations, it has been demonstrated that spending 3 to 5 minutes observing landscapes with trees, flowers or water, decreases the anger, anxiety, and pain, proving that it brings the observer into relaxation. These experiments took information from the physiological changes in the subjects such as variations in blood pressure, muscular tension, and the activity of brain and heart.

In fact, the benefits of observing a landscape are such, that even a picture would have a positive impact in our organisms.

As Cooper Marcuse says: “Spending time interacting with nature in a well-designed garden won’t cure your cancer or heal a badly burned leg. But there is good evidence it can reduce your levels of pain and stress—and, by doing that, boost your immune system in ways that allow your own body and other treatments to help you heal”.

Another example of this kind of studies was done in a hospital in San Diego, where two sculptures of a hospital’s garden were chosen to analyze the level (and kind) of interaction that the kids had with them. The first one was a mosaic large turtle; easy to climb, interesting to look at… obviously, it evoked a friendly interaction. The second one was a black crane; not attractive at all for the kid’s senses, therefore, no interaction was performed.

This brings us to think about how, with the mere observation, our brains are able to suggest a range of possibilities (as well known as affordances, by G.Gibson) that help us to perform within our environment. This is, mainly, due to the existence of the mirror neurons, which, in a way, help us to understand the performance possibilities with an object(emphasizing this issue if we see another person reproducing the action). From my particular point of view, creating spaces with this very specific evocative ability is a matter that concerns architects, so, at least, we should be aware of the neurological impacts that the space has in our brains.

Focusing in this kind of studies, the architect Susan Rodiek has created a checklist with the potential elements that would help creating an enriched garden for a hospital, aiming to fuse the theoretical facts with the practice, with the tangential world.

  • Keep it Green: Lush, layered landscapes with broad variety of trees, flowers and shrubs at various heights should take up roughly 70 percent of the space; concrete walkways and plazas about 30 percent.
  • Keep it real: The abstract sculptures do not calm people who are sick or worried.
  • Keep it interesting: Mature trees that draw birds and chairs that can be moved to facilitate private conversation foster greater interaction.
  • Engage multiple senses: Gardens that can be seen, touched, smelled and listened to soothe best. But avoid strongly fragrant flowers or other odors for patients undergoing chemotherapy.
  • Mind the walkways: Wide, meandering paths that are tinted to reduce glare allow patients with low eyesight, wheelchairs or walkers to get close to nature. Paving seams must be narrower than one eighth of an inch to prevent trips by patients trailing wheeled IV poles.
  • Water with care: Fountains that sound like dripping faucets, buzzing helicopters or urinals do not relax anyone, and neither does the strong smell of algae.
  • Make entry easy: Gardens should not be far away or behind doors that are too heavy for a frail or elderly person to open.

This is one of the many efforts that professionals for all over the world are doing to demonstrate that the built environment has a direct impact on how we behave and how we perform.

We know that new ways to approach cognition are proliferating among current researches such as the ones regarding extended cognition, embodied cognition or distributed cognition. These, help us understanding what happens in our brain when we interact with a place like Boston’s garden.

Seems logical to think that this dialogue brain-space is an everyday situation and, in silence, it accompanies us with the every task we perform. For instance, we all have a favorite spot to think, which one is yours?

Text by: Ana Mombiedro / Images by: / Originally written for AAAA magazine / Links: Prouty Garden / Date: 24 feb 2016

Ana Mombiedro