Saturday, 13 September 2014

Sharing nature with our children - Landscapes for Health and Well-Being

For our mental health and emotional well-being we need to spend time in nature. We need to stop and smell the proverbial roses. But for many people the problem is not that they don't want to stop but that they don't know how, or where. Where can they find some roses (or other attractive plant) and where is it sufficiently safe, quiet, attractive and offers a seat so we can pause a moment in our busy day?! Some families have not lived with access to a garden for 2 or more generations. What we once took for granted, a park within walking distance, a home vegetable garden and an orchard to supplement the family food supply, or even a balcony with space for pots of herbs and salad greens has been squeezed out of ever denser urban communities where space for luxuries like food growing and amenity planting is (considered) simply too expensive.

Slowly though, times are a-changin'. The public health system and corporates have been first to notice the cost of not having healthy, engaged people. Research has been commissioned and multi-disciplinary studies conclude that we are healthier when we have access to greenspace. Internationally huge companies like Google and PriceWaterhouseCoopers know their staff are more productive, report fewer sick days, and are less likely to want to move on when they have access to greenspace during their working day. Human resources are valuable. The cost of developing and maintaining the gardens is less that the cost of losing valuable employees.The employers provide roof gardens and outdoor terraces as break out areas, somewhere staff can eat their lunch, do a little weeding or pick and eat a strawberry while they mull over a question. It sounds simple. In essence it is. The problem is that only a few people know about it, so far.

I wrote a whole book on the topic of why and how health professionals see the potential of a greener, softer urban design. Health and a feeling of wellbeing is a fundamental right for all people, everywhere. The Code of Human Rights has stated this. Countries around the world have signed statements agreeing to uphold our right to health. In reality though, we have a way to go for the big picture benefits to filter through. Good things take time. But we can speed up the process by our personal actions. Rather than feel powerless to change anything on a global scale, let alone change our own lives, I urge you to take up the knowledge and use it as your personal empowerment towards a state of  mental health and emotional well-being. Allow yourself and those you love to enjoy being outside. Your physical health will thank you for it too.

As we notice that our children are 'plugged in' to technology and 'tuned out' from nature, we see the same tendencies in ourselves (we're here staring at a screen when we could be looking at the sky, breathing deeply of the fresh air, or talking to someone, or doing 1001 other things), so the problem isn't just with our kids. It's our problem too. For our health and well-being we NEED to be connecting with nature on a daily basis, actively and passively. An easy way to actively connect is to garden - even if you think you are a person who kills every plant you touch, you can still take solace from a garden and the gentle art of gardening. Don't be too hard on yourself. Understand it takes time to know when to feed, when to water, when to weed out the competition. Think back to when your child was a new baby and take your time to observe, only this time observe plants and you and your child, as you sow, tend, and harvest.

If you think of how much money people spend on "therapy" and how long it takes, use the knowledge of Google and PWC and as you move towards a healthier state of being save yourself some money. It may take time but time is yours to spend as you wish. Give yourself that time to potter, explore, experiment in the non-judgmental environment that is a garden. Even if you have just a few pots on a window sill, open the window to the fresh air and bask in the sunshine. Plants love rain so on rainy days pop your houseplants outside for a refreshing soak. Pop yourself outside too.

Show your children that it is fun to play in the rain, OK to get wet, and quite safe to get dirty.  Old clothes are ideal for gardening. Bare feet are an ideal way to feel the earth, to connect with our lcoal landscape. Perhaps more important than what we are wearing though is how we manage our nature connections. What do we allow? What messages do we send? Do we say "ugh, don't touch", or do we feel the mud, taste the fruit, smell the flower, listen for the birdsong? It's up to each and every one of us. Regardless of our age, ability or physical condition a feeling of well-being is ours, for free, if we take a moment to enjoy nature in all her glory. That's all the therapy I need.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Natural play grounds in schools

Last week the states of South Australia and Queensland announced their committment to natural play in schools. The timing was interesting in that it co-incided with Richard Louv's visit. He addressed audiences in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide on the impacts from his books The Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle. In those books he discusses the idea that today's children are disconnected from nature, and suffer as a result.

Australia is known for being an active sporting nation, but also for soaring childhood obesity rates. That natural play is being introduced across the 2 states is significant. The World Health Organisation has published data to show that rising healthcare costs associated with lifestyle-related disorders are unsustainable, in all countries. In Australia, as in the US, UK and elsewhere, although some people play organised sport, many children would rather sit indoors and play computer games. As has been shown in multiple international studies, humans are hard wired to respond to nature connections and postive natural experiences. When we are connected with nature our mental and physical health is improved and we are less liekly to suffer from lifestyle related diseases. Natural play initiatives aim to facilitate health and well-being through environmental design affordances.

State governments recognise the link between child health, educational outcomes and the importance of nature connections. In the UK we work with schools, Early Years and Family Centres to design and develop the environments to afford such experiences. In the US we also work with schools to create natural play and outdoor learning environments. In Russia, Portugal, Ghana and Malaysia we have worked with local providers to design for natural play in safe school settings. Regardless of the culture, the climate or the budget, a nature play solution is cost effective. Benefiting academic outcomes, social cohesion, health and well-being, environmental design solutions can provide a win:win for all.

Outdoor learning environments can be informal outdoor classrooms, playful spaces or growing areas

Nature play requrires natural materials

Natural play grounds in schools in a safe stream channel
When we advise schools, governments and not-for-profits around the design of school playgrounds and outdoor learning environments they can be sceptical at first. However, as soon as we show the evidence from around the world of the massive positive effects they quickly become interested. When we explain that natural play grounds in schools actually cost less than a  manufactured solution to design, develop and maintain, they are hooked.

Sustainable design requires a long term view. Health and well-being are long term goals that benefit from immediate gains. Gains in mental and physical health are seen within weeks of installing natural play grounds in schools. These benefits flow on to improved classroom behaviour, enhanced social interractions, raised academic outcomes and improved community links.

Natural play grounds in schools cost little, require little manufactured product, but create huge positive impacts

The business case for the development of natural play and outdoor classrooms within schools is strong. 2 states in Australia have initiated programmes to support the development of natural playgrounds in every school in their jurisdiction within the next 24 months. Who will be next?

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Structured informality - design for health and well-being

At a function last night I was asked about which commission I was most proud of. In the 20 years of designing gardens and interiors, I'd never been asked that before. I gave it some thought and decided to tell her about a school grounds design I'd done. It is my favourite.

It was a completely derelict part of the grounds, a small area just 7m x 20m, but which was immediately adjacent to classrooms and the main playground. It had potential.

As someone who lives a fairly informal, while structured, lifestyle, I appreciate opportunities to relax, and like to design them into my plans. My school grounds needed seating. In fact 6 different types were incorporated into the space.

Knowing the boundaries in life is important, so I like to design spaces that flow easily to each other yet are distinct. Borders, hedges, screens, changes in ground surfacing & changes in level all combine to delineate areas. Knowing how to break the boundaries is also important so spaces are flexible, enabling one are to 'become' another.

The particular garden I was describing was terraced, both to provide interest and make the slight slope more usable. It was further sub-divided by an emergency access path which runs down on side. To one side of the path I built raised bed vegetable gardens, to the other side grassed play and study space.

The whole space sensory garden is accessed through a living willow tunnel, which opens into a lawn with story telling seat set into a shrub and herbaceous border. Beyond the story telling area is a casual wildlife area with bird feeders, hedgehog house, log piles and a bat box, a table to work at and another living willow structure - this time a dome.

Step up to the top level onto bark chippings and a outdoor theatre with natural log seating. Evergreen and fruiting vines and espaliered apples grow over the outdoor classroom structure. Completing the sensory space is a magnificent view out over the valley, enhanced by carefully trimmed trees.

The whole space is enjoyed by the school, and by the community when they are welcomed in to outdoor theratre and musical performances. Abundant, bio-diverse planting has brought an increased variety and increased umbers of birds into the area. Insect life is healthy as the school composts food scraps and add them once ready as mulch. The mulch helps keep weeds down and importantly, retains moisture so over hot summer holidays, as we are experiencing now,  the plants survive on their own.

The garden has been in a couple of years now and is really starting to mature.
looking back through the living willow archway to the newly painted sustainable play house

the story telling seat, fish pond in a barrel and bird feeder

fan trained fruit trees allow big fruit in small spaces

Monday, 29 December 2008

Doing it the Barak way. PR and marketing for the planet

I just read an artcile about how everyone wants to (know how to) do it like Barak did.

The haiku like mantra of his methodology : Be Cool, Be Social, Be the Change works for me.

Being cool .The tough part of 'doing the Obama thing' , for me at least, is staying unflappable and undistracted. My work with sustainable sensory garden design (see may not seem like world changing stuff, but in a way it is. It's my way of showing the world (or a small part of it) another way of looking at themselves and our planet. It's PR for the planet.

Being social comes more easily. It's all about connections. Re-connecting with the natural world builds understanding and respect. When we respect our environment and everything connected with it, it follows that we will respect our neighbors as they are intrinsically linked with us too. If people respect you, know you, like you, they will trust you and buy from you.

Being the change is what I've done almost unconsciously for years. I've stuck my neck out and been 'different' when it was unfashionable to do so. My family and friends are made up of scientists and artists with an audience and even a following, doing their rather glitzy bit to make the world a better place. I eschewed all that to go back to basics, to teach children and adults to value our world, show people through creative design in their own space, through field trips to other inspiring spaces, to get people to value what is so easily taken for granted. My marketing plan for the planet has specific areas of focus but is essentially broad-brush.

Many people have recently commented that right now feels like towards the end of the Roman Empire. It may or may not be true but take heed: during the Dark Ages that followed the end of the Empire, some people prospered. They were the ones with the knowledge and ability to grow their own food, live with the land rather than on it. As we've seen in Zimbabwe, it takes very little time to strip a nation of its intellectuals and plunge towards anarchy. By reconnecting with the Earth we could all do ourselves a favor, whether we're in big business or small, agriculture or architecture, PR or marketing. It's not about 'going green' but about being the change.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Growing vegetables in small and unusual spaces

Home vegetable growing will become increasingly important in the future.

Knowing how to design (and grow) an attractive vegetable garden in limited space will be a challenge for many people. I'm going to run a course locally on how to do exactly that. If you think you may be interested, please get in touch, either by posting here, or by sending me an email through the website

If lots of people are interested who don't live anywhere near here I might be tempted to develop something that could be run online.

Those who have knowledge will prosper.

More soon!


Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Natural light and fresh air - #1 design requirements for a healthy lifestyle

"This provides both security and light and air to every room in the house".

The key points here are natural light and fresh air.

Offices and factories, schools and shops need to provide natural light for their workers, as well as their customers. Fresh air is as easy as opening windows (Diseases such as Legionnaires are avoided, as well as the cost to the environment and the consumer of the electricity required to run the airconditioning too)

Monday, 29 September 2008

Transition Towns - a positive response to peak oil & climate change

As Peak Oil hits, that is, when extraction no longer meets demand and the price goes even higher, transport costs will rise. Everything we currently buy that is transported to the shop will cost outrageous amounts of money. The energy we use today is largely oil and gas based.

Producing our own energy is already easy - solar heating and wind generation technology are readily available. It is possible to be self sufficient in energy and save on those horrendous power and gas bills.

As climate change increasingly affects soils, crops and livestock, we will need to adapt what we eat to suit the changing situation.

Growing our own fruit and vegetables is one simple solution. Some trial and error will be required to learn what grows best in your area. Knowing how to preserve food to eat out of season will mean we will not be reliant on expensive-to-run freezers or constant trips to the supermarket.

Locally produced food will make life cheaper, simpler, better. Locally produced energy will mean less wastage down transmission lines