Studies and experiments show that contact with nature improves health. Here are 7 reasons why you should dedicate space to healing gardens (and design them best)

Trees bring happiness (and we have already talked about this here). But the landscape, especially when it is well designed, can also have a real healing effect for those with health problems. This is why we speak of healing gardens, that is healing gardens integrated with hospitals and clinics, created to help patients in the healing process.

Biophilia and therapeutic gardens

The biologist Edward O. Wilson - founder of sociobiology - writes “biophilia is the innate tendency to focus our attention on life forms and everything that reminds them”.


It is therefore part of our evolution to be attracted to all that is living and to have emotions and feelings towards them. Studies on curative gardens were born in the early 1980s from this assumption.

The garden in the hospital

In 1984, Roger Ulrich noticed that postoperative conditions improved for patients who saw trees from their windows . Clare Cooper Marcus, a lecturer in landscaping at Berkley University and architect Marni Barnes, expanded their studies to assess the impact on doctors and nurses noting that a green environment helps reduce stress levels. .

An international reference point are the Legacy's Therapeutic Gardens, of the Portland hospital, but there are more and more structures to equip themselves with these regenerative places.

How does a therapeutic garden heal the sick?

Together with the environmental psychologist Rita Berto - part of the GREEN LEAF research group and the Affective Ecology Laboratory, University of Valle d'Aosta - we went in search of the reasons why a garden a place of care and the characteristics it must have.

Allows us to regenerate our mind

According to Clare Cooper Marcus "Exposure to a surface where green predominates - at least 70% - gives a sense of relaxation". This is because - as Rita Berto points out - "exposure to the natural environment does not tire our attentional capacity, that is, it does not create cognitive overload.

The natural environment is characterized by the presence of stimuli that activate involuntary attention, that is the type of selective attention that does not require any effort on our part and allows direct attention, necessary for carrying out daily activities which however requires a large amount effort to be maintained and saturated after intense and prolonged use, to rest and regenerate."

Combats stress

Rita Berto emphasizes how "exposure to the natural environment promotes recovery from psychophysiological stress, restoring physiological parameters to optimal levels. "This is because "the built environments to which we are exposed have numerous environmental stressors (noise, crowding, air pollution, incorrect lighting, inadequate temperatures) to which we have adapted, but our physiological stress response always remains active through the involvement of the sympathetic nervous system. Like direct attention, the sympathetic nervous system also needs to rest. Exposure to the natural environment activates the parasympathetic component of the nervous system which brings physiological parameters back to optimal levels."

Relieves loneliness

By observing different curative garden projects, common traits emerge. The presence of areas where you can sit and rest is essential but it can be seen that the seats are designed to have areas with privacy and areas that invite you to socialize.

"Interacting with others is very important, especially for those who are hospitalized or housed in homes for the elderly, but too often this behavior is not supported by the environment - underlines Rita Berto - Often the gardens are inadequate to favor the social interaction : absence of a lawn where you can play together, lack of places to sit, benches too far away, too high, lack of shaded areas, unsafe environment."

Paying attention to details allows you to make the garden a place that stimulates positive emotions , reducing irritability, fear, depression and helping you not to feel isolated: precious elements for patients, medical staff and family members.

To design a therapeutic garden you have to…

Understanding needs

It is not enough to create a flower bed. Understanding the needs of its inhabitants is an integral and fundamental part of planning and is often a participatory process . This is the example of the Oregon burn unit whose garden is characterized by shaded areas and the Therapeutic Garden built in 2018 on the tenth floor of the Gemelli Hospital in Rome, the result of a shared and multidisciplinary design that saw the hospital doctors and architects with urban sociologists, architects, social psychologists and landscape experts from the team ReLab.

Propose sensory activation and freedom

Another important element emerges from the garden of the Policlinico: the activation of the senses and the unguided use of space . Thanks to the inclusion of fountains, the attention to sounds and smells and the creation of sensory paths, this terrace allows patients under cancer treatment to follow the treatments in a non-aseptic environment, offering distractions and fostering positive emotions and feelings.

In her books Clare Cooper Marcus often remembers that "the more gardens engage the senses, the more they provide a distraction from pain, it reduces pressure, stress and improves the immune system." According to Rita Berto, "The garden deserves special attention because it carries values ​​and is the link with life outside.

For example, in the case of the elderly, the restorative garden supports perceptual and cognitive deficits by respecting their preferences, it is a safe environment that encourages independence and autonomy because it responds to the needs of understanding and exploration."

Stimulating interaction

For Rita Berto "the restorative garden is a beautiful, lively and stimulating place not only from a natural but also from a social point of view, a place where events and activities take place, and where, through contact with Nature and the activities related to it we regenerate. "A curative garden is an invitation to contemplation, to rest but also has an important value in actively supporting rehabilitation programs.

"In this case - continues Berto - we speak of active healing garden , where contemplation of Nature is combined with the use of the garden for rehabilitation purposes : occupational therapy, horticulture , physical therapy, play. "

Give beauty

The last point, because too often in landscape design it comes first, is the aesthetic aspect. Designing curative gardens is an invitation to find beauty in Nature itself and to reconnect with it. The spaces will be functional to stimulate the special needs and senses of patients or to make the wait less gloomy - as in the case of the waiting room of the Oregon Hospital surrounded by windows overlooking the garden.

Rita Berto invites us to satisfy our aesthetic needs: “Nature is beautiful! Beautiful things arouse positive emotions and feelings in us, likewise exposure to the natural environment favors the appearance of positive mood tones; in practice, Nature makes us feel good because it promotes a good mood."

Per approfondire:

Barbiero-Berto “Introduzione alla biofilia. La relazione con la Natura tra genetica e psicologia. Carocci editore

Baroni-Berto, “Stress ambientale. Cause e strategie di intervento”. Carocci editore

Clare Cooper Marcus,  “Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations”, John Wiley & Sons Inc