Garden Designers Roundtable

Labyrinths as Therapeutic Landscapes

Labyrinth at Burford Priory, courtesy of St. James's Piccadilly

Labyrinth at Burford Priory, courtesy of St. James's Piccadilly

In last week’s Garden Designers Roundtable, the theme was “Therapy and Healing in the Garden” and not one but two posts focused on labyrinths (Jenny Petersen’s “Therapeutic Spaces“) and (Lesley Hegarty and Robert Webber’s “‘Homage to Ariadne’ – Labyrinthine Therapy“). I’ve been meaning to blog about this subject for awhile, so their posts were a good nudge.

Both Jenny and Lesley and Robert distinguish between labyrinths and mazes. Historically, they were much more similar. The Greek mythological labyrinth was designed to confuse the Minotaur, and the dictionary defines “labyrinthine” as “entangled.” The term is often used when describing, say, the process of doing one’s taxes, or dealing with an insurance company, or the U.S. healthcare system.

But, as Robert and Lesley explain, since 430 AD, “a labyrinth has had a single unambiguous path to the centre and back.” And as Jenny further describes, “a labyrinth is a flat surface containing an intricately designed pathway, but it’s important to note that it is not a maze. A maze is a left-brained puzzle, full of different pathways containing tricks and turns. Fun, but not therapeutic! A labyrinth has only one pathway that moves back and forth from side to side until you reach the center–no need to figure out where you’re going; you just walk and the pathway will lead you. In fact, a favorite quote of labyrinth enthusiasts comes from the philosopher and theologian St. Augustine (345-430 A.D.) who said, ‘Solviture ambulando. It is solved by walking.'”

Esther Sternberg, in her excellent book Healing Spaces: The Science and Place of Well-Being devotes a chapter to mazes and labyrinths, and she, too, makes a clear distinction between the two, arguing that the former are challenging and stressful, and the latter generally have the opposite effect, calming and centering us in a form of walking meditation (click here to link to the TLN Blog’s interview with Dr. Sternberg, in which we discuss this and other subjects).

Jenny provides one possible explanation for this effect: “There’s a thought that labyrinths are a calming activity because of something called ‘bilateral movement.’ It’s that back-and-forth movement of the body/brain that is said to have a calming effect–think of other back-and-forth movements/activities that calm you: pacing, knitting/crocheting, reading. The side-to-side motion of the labyrinth path can help ease anxiety and depression, aid people with ambulatory/balance issues and supplement meditation or prayer.”

Labyrinths come in several different styles and can be made from many different materials, including something as simple as the mown pictured above. For some more examples, see Jenny and Lesley and Robert’s posts. They have found their way into hospitals, schools, churches, prisons, public parks, and myriad other places where they are believed to serve a holistic function of bringing balance into our lives.

I had a chance to walk the labyrinth on the rooftop garden at the American Psychological Association this summer, where Holly Siprelle gave ASLA Healthcare and Therapeutic Design members a tour. Theirs is a 7-circuit Santa Rosa labyrinth designed by Dr. Lea Goode-Harris, an active member of The Labyrinth Society. It’s a joint effort between the APA, the World Resources Institute, and the TKF Foundation and is used often by staff and visitors as a way to take a break and decompress. The garden also has a neat finger labyrinth, shown below (this one was custom-made, but you can find finger labyrinths at this website,

Finger labyrinth at the American Psychological Association. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Finger labyrinth at the American Psychological Association. Photo by Naomi Sachs

My colleague Randy Eady is a big proponent of labyrinths and their benefits. He has written, spoken, and consulted extensively on the subject and his website,, is a wealth of knowledge.

We are still building the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s Labyrinths page, where we list resources (in print or online), research, and images. We would love to expand this list, so please, leave your comments here!

Garden Designers Roundtable: Thoughts and Evidence on Therapy and Healing in the Garden

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.
~ John Burroughs

Autumn crocus, The High Line, New York City. Photo by Naomi Sachs

This blog post comes courtesy of the Garden Designers Roundtable, who invited me to be their first-ever guest blogger. I’m honored and excited to be participating in today’s roundtable discussion, the theme of which is “Therapy and healing in the garden.” All photos are by Naomi Sachs.

Some Thoughts and Evidence on Therapy and Healing in the Garden

The idea that gardens and landscapes foster good health seems like a no-brainer, especially to gardeners and garden/landscape designers/architects. It’s like telling Newton that apples really do fall down. Sadly, though I’m preaching to the choir here today, many people still haven’t grasped this concept, and we can find all too many examples of landscapes that are anything but healing (picture, if you will, a parking lot at the mall…). At the Therapeutic Landscape Network, we focus a lot of our attention on the design of hospitals and other healthcare environments because – oddly enough – they tend to be so far behind as places that facilitate health and well-being on a holistic level. We’re getting there, but we still have a long way to go.

For today, since a big part of the TLN’s mission is to connect designers and health and human service providers with the research they need to design beautiful, nurturing, successfully restorative spaces, I thought I’d highlight some of the evidence that we’ve blogged about over the years. In this case, research that “proves” that being in and interacting with nature is, indeed, restorative for body and soul. This research is important because it’s positive ammunition. It’s what makes CEOs, and policy makers, and grant funders and our clients sit up and take notice (and change the laws and sign the checks!). I’ve provided a one-sentence summary of the research, with the title of each related blog post that you can link to for more information and full citations.

But first, for background, the seminal ‘View Through a Window’ study:
In 1984, Roger Ulrich studied two sets of patients, both in the same hospital, both recovering from the same surgery. The key difference: One group’s view from their window was of nature – grass, trees and sky; the other’s was of a brick wall. Ulrich found that the patients with the nature view complained less, required less pain medication, and made a faster recovery. Here, finally, was empirical proof of the salutary benefits of nature. Ulrich’s paper, published in the journal Science, got the attention of the medical community and legitimized the field of evidence-based design. Evidence-based design being the use of quantitative, and sometimes qualitative, research to design environments that facilitate health and improve outcomes. Since then, hundreds of studies have been published. Some, like those cited below, continue to demonstrate that contact with nature is good for people; some explore how people benefit, and what conditions are best for specific groups, needs, and situations (e.g., children; seniors with dementia; gardens for people who are immuno-compromised).

Innisfree, Millbrook, NY

The evidence since ‘View Through a Window.’ A few good examples:

Trees, greenery, and other vegetation make neighborhoods safer and more desirable. They even play a role in boosting students’ grades and reducing the risk of domestic violence.
See “Healing the Neighborhood: The Power of Gardens.”

Plants in an office setting improve worker satisfaction, creativity, and productivity.
See “I Demand Satisfaction! The Role of Nature in Job Satisfaction.”

As little as 10 minutes spent outside improves attention in children with ADHD; neighborhoods with more green space improve body mass index of children and youth.
See “Nature Deficit Disorder: Getting Kids Outdoors.” For many more resources on nature-based learning and play for kids, visit our Get Out and Play! page.

Uma, picking serviceberries. Photo by Naomi Sachs

Gardening improves health and happiness, including reducing heart rate and blood pressure.
See “Horticultural Therapy in the Wall Street Journal.” Horticultural Therapy is “a professional practice that uses the cultivation of plants and gardening activities to improve the mental and physical health of its participants,” (definition courtesy of the Horticultural Therapy Institute). Hort therapists often work with occupational and physical therapists in a garden setting; gardens that are designed specifically for this kind of therapy are called rehabilitation gardens. For more information, see the horticultural therapy page on our website and for a really inspiring post about the power of horticultural therapy, see A Life Worth Living: The Garden as Healer.

Exposure to nature makes people more altruistic and generous.
It’s true, Nature Makes Us Nicer!

Autumn leaves. Photo by Naomi Sachs

I hope that now that you’ve been introduced to the Therapeutic Landscapes Network Blog, you’ll stay awhile and read some of our older posts, and that you’ll visit us again for new ones (you can also sign up to have posts emailed to you). I welcome your comments, which can often lead to great dialog on the TLN Blog.

Many thanks again to the Garden Designers Roundtable for the invitation and warm welcome as a guest blogger. Visit the GDRT website (, or click on the links below, to read other bloggers’ posts (and to see some great pictures) – it’s an excellent group, and each blogger has something interesting to say on the topic.

Genevieve Schmidt, North Coast Gardening: Designing a Landscape for Colorblind People
Ivette Soler, The Germinatrix: Plant a Garden, The Life You Save Might Be Your Own
Jenny Petersen, J Petersen Garden Design: Therapeutic Spaces
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber, Hegarty Webber Partnership: Homage to Ariadne: Labyrinthine Therapy
Rochelle Greayer, Studio “G”: A Tale About What Makes a Garden Healing