October 14, 2016

Healing gardens bring Nature in

Surrounded by the sights, scents and sounds of nature, two veterans speak softly with each other seated side by side on a mahogany bench. Moments earlier, each was surrounded by stark white walls in a treatment room steps away inside Seattle’s VA Hospital.

“When you’re dealing with PTSD, this is a beautiful place to come just to take a deep breath,” says Richard Coleman, who served on submarines in the 1970s.

His friend, Vietnam vet Tom Urban, describes the healing garden designed and built by UW landscape architecture students as “my medication.”

Professor Daniel Winterbottom speaks passionately about the therapeutic value of nature to all people, but especially to those who have faced trauma.

“When you are stressed, it is nature that will bring down the cortisol levels, blood pressure, heart rate, and restores our energy to deal with stressful situations,” he explains while sitting amid the sound of falling water, the flutter of birds and dragonfly wings, and the wafting scent of budding blooms in the VA Hospital garden. Above his head, etched into the wall, is one of several plaques: Nature surrounds me with peace, soothes my torn nerves and comforts me.

Gina Kim, who graduated in 2016 with a Bachelor’s in Landscape Architecture, served as project manager for the 27-student team who created the garden over 20 weeks.

“While this was a culmination of everything we learned it class, it taught us things we could never have learned in the curriculum,” she says. “We had to consider the availability and cost of materials. Some things that might have looked good in design weren’t good ergonomically for the veterans. It was a dose of reality.”

Students conducted focus groups with veterans and VA staff, read letters from vets through the ages, and considered the poetic and sensory effects of their work. Gina called it “humbling.” Her professor called such projects “transformative for students who are just figuring out their place in the world.”

As Gina plans a career in human-centered landscape design, she says she “can’t imagine designing without seeing how real things affect real people. It’s not just aesthetics alone. (The VA project) was colossal in terms of my education. I learned so much from it.”

Professor Winterbottom believes the future holds great promise for even more hands-on work like this that has an impact far beyond its direct beneficiaries.

“As a public institution, the UW can both teach and give back to the community in a very powerful way to benefit both students and taxpayers,” he notes.

Thanks to private funding from generous donors, the VA Hospital is brightening the lives of the 100,000 patients served there each year. Gifts to UW College of Built Environments will continue projects like these, which Professor Winterbottom says “makes students not just better designers but better people.”