Healing gardens have been sprouting up at healthcare facilities as designers and owners garner a better understanding of the connection between access to nature and healing. These places are designed for respite and offer areas to sit as well as artwork and sculptures to inspire serenity.

When Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital began making plans to relocate to a waterfront site at the Charlestown Navy Yard, the idea of an outdoor garden seemed like a natural fit. But Copley Wolff Design Group (Boston), which was hired to do the landscaping and public realm improvements, saw the opportunity to do more.

“The owner and the architect didn’t realize the value of the site in their mission,” says Lynn Wolff, principal, Copley Wolff Design Group. “They understood it as an aesthetic kind of commentary on the city side and the harbor side, but to be able to incorporate and get the patients outside and interacting with the community was something that they honestly had never thought about.”

The landscape architecture and planning firm held a series of meetings and workshops with the staff who said they wanted an active space as opposed to something more retrospective and quiet. “That’s when [the idea] started to take hold, because the therapists recognized that it was a great opportunity,” Wolff says.

“We had a strong commitment to being able to provide a range of experiences to patients and to prepare them to be out in the world, not just back in their homes,” says Paula Hereau, vice president of hospital operations at Spaulding. “Plus we’re in an absolutely spectacular location. There aren’t many hospitals in the world built on waterfront property.”

Creating real-world scenarios

While the hospital’s former site in a commercial area of Boston had room for a couple of bricks, a section of concrete, and a curve where patients could practice walking on different surfaces with their therapists, the new three-acre site houses a quarter-mile walking path with pavers that are inset with dimensional stripes every 10 feet so patients can measure their distances.

Within that loop, there’s a 6-foot-wide concrete therapy trail designed with slopes and undulations to help individuals practice real-world challenges. More advanced patients can further their rehabilitation on a secondary walkway, which features inclines as steep as 4.8 percent, says Sean Sanger, principal, Copley Wolff Design Group. “That’s a common slope condition that architects and designers use because it doesn’t require handrails,” he says. “So once you get out beyond the hospital world, you see that slope a lot.”

A range of walking surfaces throughout the setting includes boardwalk materials, crushed stones, and field stones, and there’s also a 6-inch curb and a series of steps.

The north side of the building is a haven for sports with a putting green, 7-foot-tall wall that’s mounted with stainless-steel bars for upper body activities, and a hard-surface activity area with adjustable-height basketball hoops.

 “A key piece was creating an environment and custom tailoring it to rehabilitation to serve individuals’ needs and interests,” Sanger says.

Designing for mind and body

Within the physical rehabilitation elements at Spaulding is another overlay devoted to exercises for the mind. During the brainstorm meetings, Sanger says the physical therapists had expressed a desire to also address cognitive rehabilitation and brain injuries. The design team commissioned a local artist to create 3-D sculptures of local fauna that are scattered throughout the therapy trail. A therapist can use those elements to create a scavenger hunt for patients.

A third layer in this therapeutic landscape is the interactivity between the hospital and the neighborhood. Part of the project included public realm improvements, such as a fish cleaning station and interpretative elements highlighting the Boston Harbor wildlife. Bronze sculptures of indigenous creatures such as herons, sandpipers, jellyfish, and cormorants dot the landscape and provide cognitive and tactile destinations for patients and visitors. The construction also provided new access corridors around the three-acre setting between 16th Street and the harbor.

Spaulding’s Hereau says the site is busier than anyone imagined, with people walking dogs, running, or sitting along the Harbor Walk. But most importantly, she says, it’s preparing patients to get back to their lives.

“It helps bring people who’ve had life-changing events back out to see what it’s like in a normalized environment,” she says. “It’s not like being in your room for three weeks and then going out into the world.”

During Spaulding Rehabilitation’s first six months in the new location, Hereau says patient stays decreased by a day, an effect that could be attributed to several features, including private rooms, a larger facility, outdoors access, and aquatic therapy.

 “We’re led to believe that everything we imagined in design is contributing,” she says. “We didn’t confine this test to one variable so it’s hard to know, but we believe it’s the whole package.”

For more on the design of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, including its resiliency design features, check out HCD’s December issue or click here.