Wellness gardens: A lifeline for the health and wellbeing of urban residents
The impact of the Covid-19 lockdowns on mental health is already the subject of many studies, and it comes as no surprise that the last 18 months have been associated with a rise in stress symptoms and anxiety.
The experience of lockdown has been very different for people living in flats or terraces in our towns and cities, or care home residents compared to those in more rural settings with easily accessible outdoor spaces. And whilst enjoyed by some, working from home has been a double-edged sword for many as it meant the loss of any distinction between work life and private life.
Given that our health and wellbeing are so connected to the spaces we live in and are surrounded by, architecture and design will play an important role in helping people recover from the trauma of the Covid pandemic.
The restorative effects of time spent in nature for both physical and mental health are well documented. A recent study found that just two hours spent in natural environments per week significantly boosts health and wellbeing. Interestingly, these benefits can be reaped without any physical exercise, simply by sitting on a bench and enjoying the tranquillity of the natural world.
The concept of wellness or healing gardens acknowledges and harnesses these therapeutic effects of nature. A wellness garden is designed specifically to influence the visitor’s wellbeing in a positive way.
The general idea of nature as a “healer” has a long tradition, from gardens for the ill in monastic hospitals in Medieval Europe to the more recently popularised practice of shinrin-yoku – or forest-bathing – in Japan. With 80% of Japan’s population living in urban areas, spending mindful time in the woods, or even under just a single tree, has been shown to give a much needed boost to body and soul by reducing blood pressure and improving concentration and memory.
Understood as a form of preventative medicine, forest-bathing has even become part of the Japanese government’s health programme for the country.
Although there are no strict rules about the elements of a wellness garden, there are some key features without which the wellness aspect of the garden would be diminished.
Whilst a wellness garden doesn’t need to be fully enclosed, it should be sufficiently marked off from its surroundings to form a defined space that can be experienced as a whole.
Where a wellness garden is situated, how exposed or sunny it is, will often dictate the choice of plants. A multitude of textured, multi-layered greenery is ideal for creating a restorative garden space. Scented plants aid the stimulation of the senses. Bespoke planter systems can be used to help shape the garden space and encourage gentle walks around the garden.
The provision of seating is central to wellness gardens. Benches often draw visitors in and becomes the destination. Being seated and surrounded by nature encourages mindfulness and helps the recovery from physical and mental fatigue. A range of seating choices should be offered to cater for all abilities and preferences.
The soothing sounds of water provide another relaxation opportunity and a water feature would be ideally placed near seating for maximum exposure.
A wellness garden doesn’t require much space at all and if there’s one conclusion to be drawn from all preliminary research, it is that there aren’t enough of them – yet. Beyond their obvious appeal, wellness gardens are a simple, accessible and cost-effective way to improve the health and wellbeing of urban residents.