Steve WarnerWhen, as landscape designers, do we give back?

I think in general we all give in some small way, maybe raising money for charity or supporting our local school fundraiser or soccer coaching duties, which are all noble pursuits, but I am thinking more about giving back our specific skill base as landscape designers.

In this ever increasing concrete jungle we live in, with constant talk of heat islands and global warming, maybe we need to ask ourselves that very question:

“How can I contribute to creating a better place?”

It’s a question I have asked myself many times over in my career. We are so fortunate to have the skills and experience to bring positive change by creating a landscape that can heal, create awareness or raise the profile of a non-profit, community service or struggling charity. So, then let’s do it! As landscape designers I think we can have a big impact, maybe bigger than you think.

Before - the hot, empty and unused outdoor space at the Childrens Hospital Randwick

Before – the hot, empty and unused outdoor space at the Childrens Hospital Randwick

At OUTHOUSE Design, we experienced this opportunity some months again when a remarkable person called Fairy Sparkle called me and said:

“I have a dream, I have the ideas, but I don’t have the skills and the knowledge or the contacts to bring it together. And I don’t have any money to pay you.”

To say ‘yes’ to Fairy Sparkle made no business sense. We are overloaded with work, have all the usual pressures of running a small design practice and, quite honestly, didn’t have enough hours in the day. But I had an instinct that it was right to say yes. And this is what happened, and how it changed my life.

Before - the outdoor area at the Sydney Childrens Hospital Randwick was a forgotten space

Before – the outdoor area at the Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick was a forgotten space

The existing balcony area on Level 1 at the Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick is typical of many concrete spaces found in developments. It’s hot, awkward in layout, has a range of micro-climates to tackle and, as a forgotten space, in most cases, it will stay that way. But Fairy Sparkle had a different view; she grabbed the opportunity to turn this harsh concrete balcony into calm and cool, engaging space.

After - the Happy Garden at Sydney Childrens Hospital Randwick created with synthetic grass, potted trees and toadstools for shade and seating

After – the Happy Garden at Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick created with synthetic grass, potted trees and toadstools for shade and seating

The main aim of the garden is to give some respite to sick children and their families. We also wanted children, parents and grandparents using the space to be inspired, let their imagination run wild, and just think of something else for maybe just for one minute of discovery, rather than the daunting daily health challenges that they are confronting.

After - a beaming face in the Happy Garden at the Sydney Childrens Hospital Randwick

After – a beaming face in the Happy Garden at the Sydney Childrens Hospital Randwick

We created a lawn using synthetic grass, murals to represent the enchanted forest and toadstools for seating and shade structures. Oversized pots allow for mature trees and scented shrubs and hanging moss from the coloured archways create a sense of mystery. The four metre high ‘magic light tree’ acts as the centre piece and a bright open gazebo with sky light caters for a hospital bed, so even at night time children can look up and see the magical night time stars – it’s their opportunity to dream a little. Likewise the balcony is observed from the windows of the isolation units above where sick kids, who have compromised immune systems and can’t leave the ward, can at least look out at a magical space rather than a concrete walkway.

After - the Happy Garden at Sydney Childrens Hospital Randwick includes a 4m high 'magic light tree'

After – the Happy Garden at Sydney Childrens Hospital Randwick includes a 4m high ‘magic light tree’

We are delighted that it worked. Fairy Sparkle saw her vision fulfilled and the families and children have a space that they can call their own. We managed to make sure it was functional in time for Christmas so that the poor families facing that prospect could use it, and I was heartened to hear one dad who came down a couple of days before when we were finishing it off, say to his wife and son:

“Wow guys, how good is this – this is where we will spend Christmas Day”.

This once-dismissed space that didn’t offer any value, that people never realised existed and the Hospital had not benefited from, has been transformed. It is now known under a new name ‘The Happy Garden’ and it will hold pride of place in the hearts of the Sydney’s Childrens Hospital community. It was great to see at the opening all the Sydney Children’s Hospital play therapy staff bringing their patients in to enjoy it, and they also are able to experience a quality environment during their working day. It has a reason to exist and is now a valuable asset to the hospital; all because a Fairy asked the question and the Landscape Designer said Yes! My team and I feel very privileged to have had this chance to make a difference.

After - the team who made it happen, with Fairy Sparkle

The team who made it happen, with Fairy Sparkle

Living in one of the world’s most expensive cities, the suggestion of designing for no charge may seem ridiculous, but truly I have realised that giving the community a gift of design is worth much, much more than any financial gain.

So maybe the next time you are at the local aged-care facility seeing a relative, or at the local kindergarten dropping off your children, maybe ask yourself the question:

“Can I change this space for the better?”

I think answering that question with a ‘yes’, may change someone’s life for the better, and you never know, that life could be yours.

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Steve Warner

About Steve Warner

Steve Warner established OUTHOUSE Design in 2006 and with his team has built an award-winning residential and commercial landscape design and horticultural consultancy in Sydney. Steve is immediate past President of the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers and Managers, and loves mountain and road bike riding and supporting charitable causes. Visit OUTHOUSE Design

4 thoughts on “When, as landscape designers, do we give back?

  1. Hari on said:

    An excellent buzz! Good stuff Mr. Warner.
    A green Heart is an intrinsically healing Heart!

    • steve warner on said:

      Hi Hari – thank you, sometimes we need to find time to do things that grow the soul etc

  2. Rachel on said:

    Steve, this is a truly fantastic way of giving back. The Happy Garden looks terrific and will no doubt be loved by all the children. Well done!

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