Cleveland Botanical Garden

Notes from the Cleveland Botanical Garden Sustainability Symposium

Cleveland Botanical Garden Restorative Garden. Photo by Naomi Sachs

I learned so much and met so many great people last weekend at the Cleveland Botanical Garden Sustainability Symposium, and I’d like to share a few highlights while they’re still fresh in my mind.

First, the Cleveland Botanical Garden is beautiful, even in frigid, frozen February under five feet of…snow (okay, two feet, but I was on an alliteration roll there). I was delighted to finally meet Bob Rensler, whom I’ve known for many years through TLN correspondence. He gave me a tour of the whole garden, and while we skated and trudged and geeked out on plants (he even appreciated my love for the Latin name of the dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides), Bob told me a more about his work with restorative landscapes in homeless shelters. Talk about healing gardens. These are gardens for men who are homeless, often with serious medical issues as well. Here’s an article about one of the projects, Joseph’s Home.

David Kamp’s keynote on Friday about the Elizabeth and Nona Evans Restorative Garden was terrific, and it was such a treat to go be able to go out to the garden after the talk. I can imagine how beloved this space is in warmer months. The point that stayed with me most about David’s work in this garden was the way that he designed spaces for everyone to maintain dignity at all times. An example: One could design the standard ADA-compliant sloped path, which is 5% without a handrail. If you’re pushing a wheelchair – whether you’re in it or behind it – 5% is awfully steep and you’re going to get winded, and that can be embarrassing for everyone. Adding frequent flat landings – breaks in the slope – and perhaps something to look at, or a bench to sit on, in other words some excuse to pause and take a break, allows everyone to maintain dignity without calling attention. Or the horticultural therapy area as another example. This is in the garden, but off to one side and gently screened so that the people in the program don’t feel “on display” to passers-by, yet they are still part of the garden.

Cleveland Botanical Garden Restorative Garden. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Cleveland Botanical Garden Restorative Garden, horticultural therapy area. Photo by Naomi Sachs

A talk on the Cuyahogo Metropolitan Housing Authority was inspiring. How many other municipalities have a designated landscape person? Pardon me, I have left my notes at home and I’m writing this blog post at the JFK airport en route to Lima. But trust me, the woman who spoke was great, and she has a great title. She does amazing work, from meeting with residents about issues of safety – broken sidewalks, falling-over fences, etc. – to instigating new or breathing life back into old community gardens and allotment gardens. The most powerful example being a garden that was built on the site of a parking lot where two shootings, and two deaths from those shootings, had taken place. That’s what I call a healing landscape. And such a beautiful example, as the landscape is being healed right alongside the community.

There were all kinds of good examples of ways that nurturing the landscape, the earth, can nurture individuals and communities. Stormwater management, rain gardens, butterfly gardens, herb gardens…the list goes on, and the presentations were interesting and informative.

Cleveland Botanical Garden Costa Rica Animals. Images courtesy Cleveland Botanical Garden

And finally, I learned to slow down and take a healthy dose of my own medicine. I talk all the time – including during my presentation last Saturday – about the positive benefits of interaction with nature, about how connection with nature elicits what Stephen and Rachel Kaplan call “soft fascination,” sensory experiences that attract your attention without taxing it the way concentrating on work, or walking down a busy city street, can do. Their term for this salutary effect is “Attention Restoration Theory.” I had a few minutes before my talk, and since I was feeling a tad nervous, I decided to check out the Glasshouse Gardens. The CBG has two – Madagascar and Costa Rica. They are both beautiful, and what really drew my attention that day were the birds. They were so captivating, the red-legged honeycreepers (that gorgeous blue bird pictured above), the finches, and the ducks, all flitting about and making their sweet noises and just generally being magical. As I breathed the warm, earthy air and took in all of the green and sparks of color and myriad textures and the life all around me, I could feel myself slowing down, and calming down. Who needs beta blockers when you can go for a walk in the garden?

I hope people who heard my talk got as much out of the Sustainability Symposium as I did. I’m grateful to the Cleveland Botanical Garden for inviting me as Saturday’s keynote speaker. It’s a special place and I look forward to visiting again when the snow has melted and life in the garden is in full glory. Renata and Geri and Natalie and Bob and Joe are all fantastic people (thank you, Joe, for introducing me to the chameleon – wish I’d gotten a better picture). I will be back!