Healing in Hospital Gardens

It’s long been understood that being surrounded by nature promotes a deep sense of calm and healing. Learn how this instinctual reaction to green environments has changed the way health is addressed in hospital settings.

Photo by GAP Photos/Rob Whitworth

When we think of hospitals, we think of medical treatment, but also of the clinical, sterile environment in which that treatment takes place. More and more often, however, surrounding a hospital or hidden at its heart, is a garden. Founded on recent research and the opinions of health care professionals from centuries ago, conventional medicine is recognizing the benefits of nature in the healing process of patients. Sometimes this involves using organically grown food as preventative medicine, strengthening patients with garden-grown meals. Most times, patients are given the opportunity to sit in a quiet garden or walk a peaceful, landscaped trail as a way to recover from the stress of various treatments. From trees visible through windows to areas for children to play and learn with their families, discover how gardens in modern hospitals are helping patients heal.

The Beginnings of Health Care Gardens

Although it has the appearance of an up-and-coming trend, records of nature and gardens as additions to health care facilities actually date back 1000 years in both European and Asian cultures. In the Middle Ages, monasteries were designed with soothing, distracting gardens for the ill. In the 19th century, Benjamin Rush, the “father of American psychiatry,” claimed that patients with mental illnesses benefitted from garden settings. Even famed nurse Florence Nightingale continually advocated for healing gardens and prominently featured their success in her writings, which included examples of their use in European and American hospitals. She found nature to be an essential part of a therapeutic regimen, saying in her 1859 book Notes on Nursing, “It is a curious thing to observe how almost all patients lie with their faces turned to the light, exactly as plants always make their way towards the light…” Nightingale knew fresh air, sunlight, and greenery were what recovering patients craved.

"The Garden of the Hospital in Arles" by Vincent Van Gogh.

As Rush had observed, healing gardens weren’t exclusive to medical hospitals. In the late 1880s, artist Vincent Van Gogh preserved therapeutic gardens on canvas when he composed various paintings of the landscaping, benches, and winding pathways surrounding the asylums at which he was a patient. “Garden of the Asylum,” “The Garden of the Asylum at Saint-Rémy,” and “The Garden of the Hospital in Arles” are just a few examples. While asylums during this time did eventually deteriorate into last-resort treatment centers, they were originally built with plans that included pleasure grounds, large windows, and greenery to “soothe shattered nerves.”

Despite support from historic medical professionals, it was when medicine advanced in leaps and bounds in the early 1900s that hospitals became less focused on the restorative effects of an environment and more focused on new technology, as well as eliminating any possible risk of spreading infection. The resulting institutions, while efficient and successful, are often stark. By emphasizing hygiene and functionality over all else, hospitals across the world forgot to focus on fulfilling the emotional needs of patients who were experiencing traumatic, stressful, exhausting treatments. But by reincorporating green spaces into modern hospital design, a number of facilities have noticed positive changes in patient welfare, as well as improvement in staff and visitor satisfaction.

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