When designers turn their attention to "special needs" populations there is a temptation to focus on particular, often restrictive aspects of the project rather than explore the expanse of rich experiences and possibilities. Health and ill health are a continuum. Some of us have severe restrictions (like a wheelchair bound person with cerebral palsy), others minor restrictions (like a baby stroller), temporary problems (like a broken foot) or progressive decline (as with Alzheimer's disease or aging). When we design accessible spaces we are designing not just for the disabled, we are designing for everyone, including ourselves. It is in this context of creating a garden that accommodates the full range of the human condition where we find the Elizabeth and Nona Evans Restorative Garden in the Cleveland Botanical Garden.
The space designated for the new garden was small (approximately 12,000 SF), sloped, with a mature plant collection. The space was adjacent to a busy dining terrace and provided the primary view from the Botanical Garden's gracious library. The program requirements were complex and construction was tied to an adjacent major building renovation and expansion project.
The project mandate was clearly articulated in a two-day charrette. The Cleveland Botanical Garden board of directors, staff and donors wanted a garden that was "beautiful, natural, lush, green; a setting that offers a range of opportunities, choices and experiences; a setting engaging and enriching for all who visited." This mandate reflected the memory of Elizabeth Evans, a longtime friend and board member of the Garden and early supporter of garden therapy who believed passionately that an "abundance of foliage, fragrances, blooms and trees are invaluable elements of a healing garden environment". It is Betty's spirit, her home and garden that set the tone for the project. Comfort, accessibility and beauty were to be equally important elements.
Because the garden was to be located within a public botanical garden where visitors are free to stroll, the need for privacy was an important consideration. Communication and a close collaborative working relationship were paramount to achieving a sensitive, responsive design. Discussions ranged from the general, such as the idea of beauty in the garden and issues of privacy and security (both real and perceived), to the specific, including the physical and psychological needs of various visitor groups, the horticultural therapy program requirements, the maintenance and protection of existing plant material, plant acquisitions and site conditions. Path materials were considered for their durability, aesthetic quality, glare, and accessibility, balancing the need for slip resistance with degree of texture to minimize fatigue. Plants were assessed with regard to their use in horticultural therapy programs, durability in a public space, place in the Botanical Garden's collection and so on. The garden's design would emphasize the importance of immersion within a beautiful garden setting while discreetly creating a comfortable environment with a range of uses.
The resulting garden is a series of three unique settings, each with a distinct character and level of activity: one for quiet contemplation; one for both individual exploration and teaching large groups; and one for horticultural therapy.
The Contemplative Garden
The contemplative garden is a simple, elegant space adjacent to the Botanical Garden's library. A mature white blossoming Yulan Magnolia (Magnolia denudata) stands at the head of a reflecting pool. Behind it a fountain flows from the top of a low wall into a basin. The space features a lawn panel and is contained by a stone walk that connects the entry to seating areas, the water features and an overlook. Color in this calm setting is muted - primarily shades of green. Flowers and fragrances are minimized, as is the hardscape. Materials reflect the context of the Botanical Garden and the elegance and fine detailing of the library. Mature plant material, stone and water speak to the institution's permanence and commitment to the community, especially its most vulnerable populations. This verdant, quiet garden serves as the entry point for all three components of the Evans Restorative Garden. Its location adjacent to the dining terrace required clear separation. A vine-covered stone wall extends from the library to screen the terrace and frame the entry. Windows in the wall reveal the reflecting pool, Magnolia, and lawn, hinting at what is beyond.
The Demonstration/Exploration Garden
Behind the low retaining wall of the Contemplative Garden is another garden with an unusual sense of privacy. This space is defined by a high stonewall designed in close collaboration with the Botanical Garden's Horticultural Therapist and Director. The wall itself is a participatory feature offering a variety of opportunities for touching, smelling and hearing. Carefully selected native stones, interesting plants and water features - a waterfall, pool and water trickling over moss covered stone - engage users whether they sit or stand. Plants cascade over the wall and grow in niches to encourage exercise and develop motor skills while visitors engage in the simple pleasures of smelling and touching as they explore and enjoy this garden. This area is designed for both individual exploration and group activities.
The Horticultural Therapy Garden
The space designed for horticultural therapy programs is sunny, open, and overflowing with color. Sensory stimulation is heightened in this area as clients, some with severe disabilities, work with and enjoy carefully selected plants and crafts. Program participants are provided a choice of planter widths, heights, and special displays. A dozen varieties of basil provide a long growing season with plants of various heights and blooms so visitors either walking or sitting in wheelchairs have the same experience of fragrant basil at eye and nose level. Paths, activity areas, and a place to greet clients are spacious. The dynamics of conducting and participating in a therapy activity in such a public setting were carefully considered and is another example of the collaboration between the Botanical Garden staff and Landscape Architect. The use of planter walls and a berm create interest and privacy while allowing the general public to enjoy this part of the garden without intruding on or distracting groups or activities. Health care professionals and others are welcomed in this area as they learn about horticultural therapy, plants, and gardening.
The Elizabeth and Nona Evans Restorative Garden is an integral part of the Cleveland Botanical Garden's mission
to "blend education, social responsibility, cultural and environmental stewardship" helping "people of all
ages, backgrounds, and abilities appreciate and benefit from the positive role that plants play in their lives."
It educates and entertains visitors with sensory rich experiences and programs. It provides a setting for
the collection and display of plants. And, most important, it does these things discreetly, comfortably, for people
of all abilities.