Nacadia, Healing Garden

Copenhagen, Denmark, author, 10/04/2013

view the article
The article was originally written in english and translated in german for the publication

​Nacadia_ Healing Garden

When ancient Greeks named Arcadia, the idyllic, pastoral and beautiful land in the Peloponnese peninsula, they never imagined that the simple, direct and pure contact with nature would have further scientific value.

Today Nacadia, is a modern representation of a myth, where man coexists peacefully with nature, in an harmonous and beneficial way. This unconditional relationship fosters healing results to human nature. Looking deeply into the concept of Nacadia, we will probably understand how and why nature has a positive influence on people from a preventive as well as a treatment perspective.

The concept model of Nacadia, based on Health Design, was developed by associate Professor Ulrika K. Stigsdotter, Dept. of Forest and Landscape, Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, in collaboration with partners from Stress Center Kalmia and garden therapist and psychologist Dorothy Djernis.

The clinic hosts soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The total area is 9.700 m2 of open spaces, forest-like land, large plant volumes and water. There are two existing buildings, the former gardener’s dwelling and a 300 m2 greenhouse designed for resting and sheltered social activities for the guests or, alternatively, for research, lectures and teaching for visitors. The rehabilitation process is a 10-week nature-based program, working in a maximum of eight-person groups. Participants and therapists stay as long as possible outdoors all year round. The garden is designed for different levels of activity as well as for relaxing in rest-areas scattered around.

Nacadia is a part of Hørsholm Arboretum, in the north of Copenhagen. When hearing the word “Arboretum”, a large setting of trees and bushes comes to mind, since arboretum, in Latin means "collection of trees" or “tree gardens”. In fact, Hørsholm Arboretum, established in 1936, has a unique collection of 2.000 species of trees and bushes, the largest collection in Denmark.  

This feeling of dense and high vegetation welcomes the visitors, while walking the 600 meters towards the entrance of Kalmia clinic. Crossing a large pergola marks the entrance to the garden. The stepping is safe, since wooden stripes are embedded in the ground, while grass parts are growing between them. When the pergola stops, the tree arcade starts. The transition is smooth. You are now facing the savannah with the colorful flowers and high grasses that stimulate your attention. This open meadow leaves you a bit exposed and make you feel like being observed, so you are looking for an escape and refuge into the wild growing nature. After the savannah, there are many ways to follow. You can walk the paths, picking berries or be alone under the trees, sitting on a tree trunk covered by the long branches. Or, you can just sit around the lake, where the water reflects the sky, where a tree opening was left purposely right above. The sounds of the nature, as birds and water flow and the mirroring in the water keeps you in the present; you are now focusing on the present moments, getting away from stressful thoughts of the past or the future. Even the bench is designed in a way that provides you with choices. It’s not too small, or too big. If you sit in the middle, it means that you would rather stay alone, but if you decide to sit on the side, this would make space for company. It is very important to have choices in the healing garden, so you may set the levels of communication or participation. The stepping-stones in the lakes and the crossings of the streams, symbolize the simplest activity in nature. You and the nature elements are now the less demanding interaction in the garden. The area is designed to be a refuge, a serene environment with richness in species that you mostly enjoy alone, being away.

At the inner side of the garden there is a wooden construction around a tree, where you can feel elevated, a bit above ground level. Alternatively, you can observe nature from a small wooden house right next to the tree. There is a front glass window without any openings on the backside. This gives a feeling of safety as you are not being watched, or interrupted from your meditation. There are also high-elevated elements in the garden, like a large wooden deck, viewing platforms and balconies that promote emotional participation. That means that you are still alone but observing the other humans from a safe distance.

During the rehabilitation process, there are experts and psychologists to guide you with interviews, conversations and sessions. These gatherings take place around the fire, in front of the glass house. When the weather is cold, or rainy, the participants move into the glass house designed in a minimal, almost Japanese setting. The context is a micrograph of nature, including different types of nature rooms and activities. Gardening activities, gathering places, closed rooms, water elements, a dining table, a fireplace and a hammock, are all indicating different levels of participation, ranging from being alone to involved in more social activities. Kitchen gardening is also taking place next to the outdoor kitchen. This kind of activity is social, meaningful, and creative that makes the participant feel rewarded.

The design criteria for a healing garden have to do with the plurality of spaces and choices. The garden should be designed as a sum of different rooms, open, semi-open, closed and enclosed spaces. A tree arcade for example, could be perceived as a closed and, therefore, a safe room.  Feeling safe is very important during the therapy. There should be simplicity and accessibility, meaning that everything you see you can also access. Flexibility is another crucial element in the garden, concerning the choices, like moving your chair wherever you like.

As already mentioned above, the levels of demand and involvement are very important. The first step of the treatment is mostly nature observation and being alone. During the process, the environment is slowly becoming more demanding and the interaction more complex. Nature observation is followed by activities like flower watering, kitchen gardening or animals’ care. The interaction with humans is the last stage of participation and involvement where people may finally return to their regular lives.

Nacadia is a garden designed in a humanistic way. It means that the design varies from big scale (e.g. forest) to a more detailed one (e.g. human). The man feels he can find his place and reach his mental dimensions and limits through his own existence. Nacadia combines healing therapy along with the conventional treatment and research.

It is not really something new to think that nature offers the antidote to stress and mental disorders. Maybe it is a marketing trick to reinvent the healing values found years ago in monastery gardens. I think that the innovation is to approach the healing benefits in a more scientific way through measurable effects of nature. This is the way to understand, in practice, the complex interactions between environment and the human well-being.

published in Garten+Landschaft (Munich)
Zeitschrift fur Landschaftsarchitektur
#April 2013