Resilient Places?: the restorative paradigm and Maggie’s Centre Gardens, by Angie MacDonald

The idea that a garden can be a space for transformation is embedded within ancient and modern ideas of the restorative garden. This paper argues that a garden can be not merely a healthy but a ‘resilient place’ embracing a dynamic and inclusive relationship between humans and the natural world and one that can evoke sensory memories and future orientation. Illness can be a defining moment – this research explores how the qualitatively different experience of time and space presented by a garden can support people to regain a sense of balance. Thereby bringing into focus  the importance of the restorative garden as a historical and contemporary phenomenon.

The context for this research is the discourse, across the disciplines, surrounding the effects of both the built and green environment on well-being. This includes the debates about how to design and create spaces that are not only good for the environment but also good for our health. It also includes the debates about notions of ‘sense of place’, restorative landscapes and so-called ‘healthy places’, as well as ‘transformational design’ and ‘design activism’. The idea of ‘affordance’ linking environment and human behaviour and opportunities is particularly relevant (Gibson 1979, Grahn et al 2010).

The research takes as its focus the role of the restorative garden in contemporary healthcare in the United Kingdom. In particular, I look at the Maggie’s Cancer Care Centres and consider whether their gardens offer a new paradigm for the restorative garden. Since 1996 the Maggie’s Centres have been pioneering a new approach to cancer support in the United Kingdom. Fundamental to this new approach is the belief in the transformative potential of the designed environment, both inside and out. Each centre is characterised by a distinctive and highly individual design by leading international architects and landscape designers, thereby foregrounding the significance of experimental design within the public sector.

But how effective are these designs? And how do you assess their impact when as Crouch (2010) states, space is ‘open, flexible, temporary, fleeting, multi-sensorial, emotional and affected by contextuality’. My research looks at how a positive sense of well-being is the result of a complex interaction of environmental, social and symbolic factors and offers a unique approach to exploring people, space and place. I consider a garden as a set of circumstances and taking lead from aestheticians such as Berleant (1992) and Brady (2003) as well as ethnographers such as Pink (2009), argue for a multisensory understanding of the environment. For my case-studies I have developed a methodology of ‘sensory mapping’ which can explore the ‘topology’ of a garden from a variety of perspectives and means.

Recording the experiences of staff, patients and their families as well as the interests and concerns of the designers, the main feature of this research are a series of photoelicitation interviews. My aim has been to create textured, qualitative narratives that convey the experiences of these gardens and thereby reveal some of the subtle ways that a garden can or cannot have restorative significance.

Berleant, A (1992) The Aesthetics of the Environment, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Brady, E. (2003), Aesthetics of the Natural Environment, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Crouch, D (2010) ‘Flirting with Space’, Conference Paper, Creativity and Space Conference, University of Exeter.
Gibson, J (1979) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin
Grahn, P., Tenngart Ivarsson, C., Stigsdotter, U. & Bengtsson, I. (2010) ‘Using Affordances as a Healthpromoting Tool in a Therapeutic Garden’ in Ward Thomson, C., Aspinall, P. & Bell, S. (eds) (2010) Innovative Approaches to Researching Landscape and Health. Abingdon Oxon: Routledge, 120-161.
Pink, S. (2009) Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: Sage

Angie MacDonald, University of Falmouth, UK

Harvard Citation Guide: MacDonald, A. (2012) Resilient Places?: the restorative paradigm and Maggie’s Centre Gardens, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 20 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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