Recovery and hospital gardens

Can nature and walks help people get better?

watercolor by Frits Ahlefeldt
Bridge in healing garden

The story of how a job about an old hospital garden taught me much new about how nature can be connected with recovery

Hiking is a classic way of handling trouble, but can it really make you better, can you solve problems by walking… or is it just walking away from them?  Can you heal or re-invent the way you look at life by walking – till you come back as another person  – or at least a person who feel better?

It is classic questions and I see more and more professionals, hospitals and organisations looking into if there is a way to somehow prescribe walking to people who needs recovery, both from physical hard times, but especially from more psychological challenges like stress, depression, grief and sorrow.

A few of the projects I have been part of  have recovery, through contact with nature and walking, as part of their foundation and in the projects we try to combine and find all new ways of facilitating recovery, but then, some time ago, I was called in to do watercolors of an old hospital garden that really surprised me and where I learned that connecting recovery with nature is also something to be rediscovered:

Bispebjerg Hospital Garden

It started when I was contacted by a very famous old Danish Jugenstyle hospital called Bispebjerg Hospital because they had this old fairyland garden that somehow had been lying in the shadows in 50 years or so while technology had moved in and taken over the spotlight.

When I arrived I came through the most amazing botanical like garden, with rare trees, water fountains, sculptures, small paths with wind-sheltered sun spots, benches and niches where the early spring was much ahead of the rest of the landscape.

At the meeting I met one of the old doctors, who had been working for many, many years in the hospital and new it very well, he smiled and sat down, then started to tell me about the hospital garden like I’ve never heard someone talk about a garden before, I put down my pencil and listened amazed while he told stories about how beautiful it was thought out, and how in the old days, before antibiotics, the hospital would grow their own medicine herbs in their vegetable garden and have the patients take walks around the beautiful spaces every day, or sit in special designed sun-corners in fresh air… as medicine.  And then he told me that now they had long been thinking of somehow to make the patients re-discover the hospital garden´s beautiful and healing power.

The old doctor took up my pencil: “Caran d’Ache”, he said and turned it around  “do they still make these?”

“yes” I said surprised and looked at him, not many outside architecture knows about the legendary Caran D’Ache pencils  “but”, I continued “they are getting harder to find, now everybody use computers instead”

He nodded and tried the pencil on a piece of paper on the table “I used to be an architect, working for Alvar Alto, up in Finland” he said…

And then he told even more amazing stories about working up in Finland, and about going to Italy, while sketching them up he explained some of the challenges they had measuring up the Pantheon in Rome and then… how he one day decided to start all over, from scratch, changing from architecture to medicine

We talked on about how to show the hospital garden to all those who didn’t know it and decided I should do my best to try to catch the atmosphere of it in watercolors that could be used together with stories to tell people about a very, very special healing garden, from a time long forgotten by modern medicine.

For the next months I used many days with my watercolor brushes, walking around in the almost empty hospital garden thinking about the stories I heard of all the special places there,  painting watercolors of the art Noveau decorations, lamp posts and other carefully designed and crafted details.

Here are a few examples of my watercolors from the Bispebjerg Hospital Garden.

You can see many more in the Bispebjerg Hospital Garden pamphlet that was part of the result


Watercolour of an old lamp
Lamp, Watercolor detail, Healing Garden
Fountain watercolour
Fountain, Watercolor detail, Healing Garden


Watercolor of wall in garden
Wall, Watercolor detail, Healing Garden
Watercolour painting of brick heart
Heart of bricks, Watercolor detail, Healing Garden

To me that was an unforgettable introduction to how hospitals can work with creating healing spaces and natural recovery by upgrading the areas around them to be an essential part of the treatment, recovery and thrive both of the patients, the people who work there and those visiting.

Thanks for the job and to Doctor and Architect Peter Skanning, Bispebjerg Hospital for all the great stories about the hospital garden

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