Green therapy: CALS expertise helps redesign landscapes to heal body and soul

The teens in the rehab program can’t have drugs, so they use the waterfall instead.

That’s how Lily Mank BSLA’15 explains the fact that when patients first visit the healing garden at the Rosecrance Griffin Williamson adolescent substance abuse facility in Rockford, Ill., they choose to sit near the cascading water.

“I think the drugs numb their emotions, and when they don’t have access to drugs, they become very raw, very sensitive to their thoughts,” says Mank. “They need the stimulation of the waterfall, the white noise, to quiet themselves down.

“They move away from the waterfall as they become more comfortable with their thoughts and more able to be balanced within themselves,” she says. “That’s a sign that they’re getting ready to leave the program.”

Mank doesn’t know if her explanation is right, but she plans to find out in her ongoing research of nature restoration.

The five-acre garden, designed by master Japanese landscape designer Hoichi Kurisu, is incorporated into every part of the highly successful 12-step addiction treatment program at the Rosecrance facility. It’s a powerful tool for clearing the minds of the 12- to 18-year-old patients.

It was also powerful for Mank. Since working in the garden as an intern in her junior year of the CALS landscape architecture program, she has made healing landscapes her career focus. She went on to do a senior thesis focused on improving nature access at a Wisconsin mental health hospital. She also earned a certificate in health care garden design at the Chicago Botanical Gardens and interned at Ziegler Design Associates, a company owned by Steve Ziegler BS’83 and Joan Werner-Ziegler BS’78, CALS alums who specialize in designing healing spaces.

Lily Mank

Landscape architecture graduate student Lily Mank, pictured here on the Rosecrance campus in Rockford, is exploring how gardens help people heal. Photo: Joan Fischer. Banner photo: Feel the peace: A five-acre garden at the Rosecrance Griffin Williamson Campus in Rockford, Ill., helps teens recover from substance abuse. Photo: Rosecrance Health Network

Mank still thinks about the waterfall. How, exactly, she wonders, does spending time in the Rosecrance garden—or in any peaceful outdoor space—help settle an unsettled mind?

That’s a great question, says Sam Dennis. It’s right at the heart of what he studies as a professor and director of the Environmental Design Laboratory (EDL) in the CALS Department of Landscape Architecture (LA). While the LA department is best known for its work on environmental restoration—techniques people can use to heal damaged natural environments—Dennis and his team at the EDL flip that around. They’re finding ways to incorporate nature into human-made environments to restore the health of people. Dennis’s projects employ thoughtful outdoor design to help people eat better and get more exercise and to create safer, calmer and more cohesive neighborhoods.

Health-conscious design has always been on the department’s radar. In 1981, 10 years before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Steve Ziegler was encouraged to do his senior thesis on barrier-free design in elder care facilities. But today the topic is getting much more attention.

As one example, assistant professor Kristin Thorleifsdottir has been reworking the curriculum to make sure students get a good grounding in the burgeoning area of science that looks at connections between health and the built environment.

The native Icelander offers three classes on the topic, including a new sophomore-level design class in landscape architecture and a graduate seminar that attracts students from landscape architecture, interior architecture, urban and regional planning,health care and other disciplines. She touches on history—from the cities of the ancient Greeks to the urban squalor of the Industrial Revolution—but most of what she covers starts in the 1980s.

In a 1984 study, Texas A&M design professor Roger Ulrich found that postsurgical patients who had a view of trees from their hospital windows were released sooner, took less pain medication and experienced fewer complications than did patients who had a view of a blank wall.

“Ulrich’s study was the first that looked at health and design,” she says. “Since then there have been a lot more.” Those studies span diverse disciplines—urban planning, public health, pediatrics, psychology, gerontology, neurobiology, art, horticulture and forestry, to name a few—which means those who study the topic must learn several lexicons.

“The fields of public health and design speak very different languages,” Thorleifsdottir notes. “Design researchers tend to take a more qualitative approach—they look at how people experience the environment. Public health is very much into quantitative measures.”

Her own research focuses on health at the community level, including studies on neighborhood design and children’s outdoor physical activities. She’s embarking on two new studies, one of them on the quality of public city parks and the availability of settings for mental restoration, a collaborative project with research partners in Sweden and Serbia.

Sam Dennis

Landscape architect Sam Dennis relaxes for a moment in the just-opened Hilary Grace Healing Garden at UW Hospital, a peaceful place for patients to rest and rejuvenate. The garden was designed by Ken Saiki Design. Ken Saiki BS’79 employs many CALS alumni, including Joe Porter BS’02, who managed the project from conception through completion. Photo: Joan Fischer

Sam Dennis has become pretty fluent in the language of public health. As part of UW–Madison’s campus-wide Obesity Prevention Initiative, his partners include researchers in nutritional sciences and family medicine. Body mass index (BMI) is a common research metric, and a recent study involved drawing blood. That project, a collaboration with the Madison-based nonprofit Community Groundworks, used a garden-based curriculum to teach young people to eat better.

“Rather than ask how much the students eat, the researchers took a blood sample. You could tell by levels of serum carotenoids in blood whether they were eating fruits and vegetables,” Dennis explains.

Dennis doesn’t wield the syringes. While his collaborators collect data on human health, he assesses how well the urban landscape supports it. He works with residents of underserved urban neighborhoods to identify features that either facilitate or impede physical activity, healthy eating and safety.

To collect the data, the EDL team has developed an innovative (and now widely replicated) tool that they dubbed “participatory photo mapping.” The researchers ask neighborhood residents—often kids—to photograph things that they see as barriers to healthy living, and then ask them to write stories explaining the photos.

“They tell the stories, then we geo-locate the stories and photos with GIS, so we can overlay their stories and images with, say, traffic data, or data about pedestrians and bicyclists getting hit by cars, or crime rates.”

Often the stories lead to simple fixes, such as repainting crosswalks, adding pedestrian signals or hiring a playground supervisor so that parents feel reassured about their kids using a local park.

But residents also point out problems that are pretty surprising—and tough to solve. Dennis recounts what Latino kids in South Madison had to say about a nearby city bike path.

“They say they’re not welcome there because the bike path is for white people—that you’ve got to be rich and have a special kind of bike,” Dennis says. “The literature says the presence of a bike trail significantly reduces the body mass index of everyone around it, but the kids aren’t using it because they don’t see it as their space. Instead, they ride on busy streets.”

“They’re very sensitive to where they feel welcome,” Dennis notes. “Mapping that is part of mapping their well-being.”

Stories like these are important, Dennis says, because they point to health problems that can’t be diagnosed by calculating body mass or drawing blood.

“Physiological things like body mass index are important, but so is our mental well-being,” Dennis says. “There’s a lot of research suggesting that chronic stress experienced by people with low incomes helps explains disparities in health across different environments. As environmental design researchers, we try to figure out the source of that stress and then see what we can do to reduce it through changes in the built environment.”

Continue reading this story in the Fall 2016 issue of Grow magazine.