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Fisher House / My Life So Far blog

“Democratic design is inclusive, affordable, functional, usable, practical, non-stigmatizing, accessible, attainable, and aesthetically pleasing,” said Naomi Sachs, ASLA, landscape architect and founder of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans. Furthermore, democratic design is “responsive to both ecological and community needs. It grows up from the community.” A democratic design process is then fully collaborative, including all stakeholders, but with a focus on those least acknowledged.

Sachs’ colleagues presented a few interesting examples that illustrate the idea of democratic design for therapeutic gardens:

Daniel Winterbottom, FASLA, a landscape architect and professor at the University of Washington; Amy Wagenfeld, a occupational therapist; along with students from the landscape architecture department at the University of Washington, designed a new healing garden for Fisher House, a facility at the Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Puget Sound, Washington, for loved ones of those undergoing intensive surgery.

Unfortunately, the garden is found in a parking lot, with a sea of cars.  On top of that, the original garden had “poor way-finding, so you felt a loss of control as you entered the place,” said Wagenfeld. It was a place where you have “very little say over your environment.” Most visitors are also coming from rural areas to the city so “they already feel a sense of displacement.”

Winterbottom said he and his students conducted intensive research, using focus groups, games, simulations. Users of the spaces were shown different photos and asked their preferences. They were asked to rank designs. Others simply sketched their ideas.

The new garden, which was then designed and built in just 10 weeks, features vegetable and fruit plants, “creating a domestic feeling.” Given many people are there for months, “we wanted to bring an icon of home — the kitchen garden.” Emphasizing the democratic aspects of the design, the team created multiple types of planting beds. There are those for people who want to sit, and those for who want to stand. There’s even a wheelchair-accessible one. Visitors can plant whatever they want.

There’s a new children’s play area. “The kid’s area is kid-sized.” There’s a walking trail around the whole space. “The goal is to deal with the whole family,” said Winterbottom.

The designers also created a fully wheelchair accessible rain garden that treats water falling on the site. Within this area, there is a sculpture that is about “mending broken hearts and bodies, bringing them together.”

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Fisher House / Lyon Landscape Architects

The new garden is set up so that people can interact or just be by themselves. “There are a range of spaces, so you can find your own appropriate one.” Wagenfeld said “there’s a sense of escape in the garden.” Apparently, it’s also widely-used.

According to Winterbottom, some of the challenges creating the garden were eliciting participation among the users, who were all going through some really difficult times. The design team was also really young. “With young designers, it’s all about them, not about other people.” Lastly, perhaps the biggest challenge was some long-time staff members, “who often berated patients” and thought they knew what the visitors wanted, when in fact they did not.

In another example, we learn about Nikkei Manor, an assisted living facility for Japanese Americans of the internment camp generation in Seattle. Many residents of the manor feel a sense of “displacement, loneliness, abandonment, and loss of identity” when they move into assisted care, said Wagenfeld.

The original idea was to create a Japanese garden, said Winterbottom, but “to even touch a Japanese garden, you need about 10-20 years of experience.” To design one, you need to find a master. So he and 17 landscape architecture students created a Pacific Northwest-style Japanese garden for just $75,000 in just one semester.

Every space in the garden is easily visible, as many residents have dementia. There are railings everywhere — both for security and exercise.

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Nikkei Manor garden / Daniel Winterbottom

Wagenfeld said the space has “active flexibility, with a stage for performances.” The garden uses “universal design principles to create a sense of familiarity.” It’s also a popular spot for neighborhood gatherings. (see more images).

Really, it sounds like democratic design is just good design.