Healing Gardens as Transformative Spaces

Volume 49, Issue 1 :: By Virginia Burt, FCSLA, FASLA

The author walking the labyrinth at the Schneider Healing Garden at Seidman Cancer Center.

The author walking the labyrinth at the Schneider Healing Garden at Seidman Cancer Center.

Often I am asked, “What makes a healing garden healing?” The answer is: any garden is healing and research proves it to be so. It has been my experience, however, that deep transformative experiences can be facilitated in gardens designed specifically for healthcare settings. Healing gardens and exterior natural spaces within healthcare settings create liminal spaces that facilitate transformation in individuals, small groups, and communities.

In Revisioning the Earth, Paul Devereaux’s practical guide to using the power and energy of nature to heal ourselves (1996), he writes that a “liminal condition is a phase of transition between different states of being, and can apply to a wide variety of circumstances – social, ritual, temporal, and spatial.” Educator Edmund O’Sullivan (1999) sees the inherent potential therein. Exploring healing gardens as liminal spaces that move beyond traditional landscape architecture into the realm of transformative learning can lead to “a deep structural shift in the basic premises of thoughts, feelings and actions…that dramatically alters our way of being in the world.” Further, a deep shift can result in spiritual experiences – this may include simply stopping to take a breath of air, both grounding and uplifting one and allowing spirit to ride in on the breath; or perhaps a heightened awareness of connectedness to something far greater than we are.

Waiting in Liminal Space

Healing gardens are intentionally designed to provide a physical space that supports people who are dealing with disruptions in their lives: the present is confusing and the future uncertain. A person or a loved one with a challenging health issue is waiting in liminal space, suspended at the threshold of new experiences. When a healing garden is designed specifically to attend to this dynamic and exponential shift for people, it becomes a space for potential transformation. The Schneider Healing Garden at Seidman Cancer Center (SCC) in Cleveland, Ohio, is one such liminal space, located at the threshold that separates SCC from the vibrant city at the door. The healing nature is emphasized as one’s eye is drawn to the church across the street, creating a visual linkage to spiritual practice regardless of one’s religion or spiritual belief.

Iterative Design Process

Gardens as transformative spaces are best designed using an iterative process that engages people–patients, family members, caregivers, volunteers, staff, donors, and management–so the design of the place is meaningful to all involved. During the participatory input sessions for the Schneider Healing Garden, cancer survivors, family members, and caregivers asked for an “oasis,” a place to “take a breath.” The essence of this space is an archetypal “island,” as described by Julie Messervy (1996). When I used this intention to create “somewhere else instead” in this new space, it provided clarity for each design decision.

Human-made transformative spaces often encompass four physical aspects: Gateway, Boundary, Center, Path. Each of these aspects can provide opportunities for individuals to explore on their own, and they also relate to programming for learning opportunities in “communitas,” as described by Paul Devereaux. These gardens do not stand on their own as liminal, healing spaces. Healing experiences are created through the ongoing interaction of people, place, and programming. Hanne De Jaegher and others (2007) describe this in Participatory Sense-Making. Most interpersonal understanding, they write, is “done in the live, real-time, sometimes precarious, connecting between people in an ongoing social encounter.” This is the world of dynamic co-emergence, resulting in transformative learning.

“People” are all those who are involved in experiencing the garden. “Place” implies that the garden is not a leftover space between buildings, disconnected from what happens inside, but integral to the whole. The Schneider Healing Garden, for example, is adjacent to the front entry where it is seen immediately from the vehicular drop off. The garden is also seen from every floor above by approximately 2,000 patients and caregivers in surrounding buildings. “Programming” includes the multiple and singular experiences that are actually held in the garden, everything from a single person connecting to the planned environment of the garden, to small group experiences, to community-wide events.

Providing Paths to Connection

Transformative learning and shifts into spiritual experience happens in many ways. When viewing life from a spiritual perspective, we see ourselves connected–to the unknowable and to something far greater than we are. Here are some examples from the Schneider Healing Garden:

In the healing garden, visitors become immediately immersed in unusual plants and trees as they make the journey down a ramped path to arrive at a carved stone labyrinth, whose center is an omphalos of possible experience – a metaphoric liminal space unto itself. Walks are programmed by the chaplains within SCC, who invite individuals or groups to experience three “I’s”: Initiation (taking the first step, facing one’s fears); Illumination (arriving at the center rose, achieving understanding); Integration (following turns taking along the path, learning along the way). During one such walk held on the winter solstice, people carried candles signifying bringing light to the shortest day of the year. Prayer, meditation, intention, contemplation, and spiritual exercises are stimulated. During and after the walk, a temporal experience in community, participants released emotions from tears to laughter, shared insights into their journey with cancer, and expressed a deepening understanding and clarity.

Air, earth, wind, and fire are represented in the healing garden through a variety of sculptural elements, arranged in four cardinal directions, to provide natural distraction and stimulate reflection. Staff held a harvest event for patients, families, and caregivers to walk the labyrinth together, then experienced these sculptural elements as symbols of their journey, and then engaged in writing Haiku poetry about their experiences in the garden.

A father of six young children, at SCC for extended treatment, told me that he was unable to visit the healing garden due to his immune deficiency. However, each night he would look down from his sixth-floor room and trace the labyrinth with his finger. The garden is intentionally accented with lighting programmed to cycle through all seven colors of the chakras (centers of spiritual power in the body). He described the experience as the one thing that helped him cope with the anxiety of treatment and remain strong with his children.

In another instance, a self-employed businessman, diagnosed with cancer, was required to remain at SCC for 30 days of treatment. During this time, he insisted that caregivers and family alike unhook his treatment port daily to allow him to go to the healing garden. His wife found me there by chance one day and said, “This space, this garden, is the only thing that kept my husband here. Thank you, thank you so much for creating it.”

One hospital administrator took a difficult staff member out into the garden for meetings to physically and literally “clear the air.”

Examples such as these tell us that healing gardens that are carefully designed and programmed for human experience and transition can lead to profound experiences and opens visitors to the possibility of transformative learning and spiritual connectedness. Devereux describes this well: “In our effort to understand place, [we find that] those liminal spaces…where visions can be had, where hierophanies can erupt, or boundaries…can be breached, are the greatest teachers.”


Alexander, Christopher, et al, (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York, Oxford University Press.

De Jaegher, Hanne, Di Paolo, E., (2007), “Participatory Sense-Making.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6 (4).

Devereux, P. (1996) Revisioning the earth: A guide to opening the healing channels between mind and nature. New York, Simon and Shuster.

Messervy, Julie Moir, (1996) The Inward Garden, New York, McMillan Books.

O’Sullivan, E. (1999) Transformative Learning: Educational vision for the 21st century. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press Inc.

The author is a landscape architect who heads her own firm, Virginia Burt Designs, based in Burlington, Ontario, Canada and Cleveland, Ohio.