“Gardens are as much emotional constructs as aesthetic compositions.” Ogden and Ogden
I’ve always been attracted to the idea of gardens with ‘soul’. I’m amazed how a seemingly perfectly designed garden can leave me absolutely cold but another with supposed imperfections here, there and everywhere can have the most profound effect on me.
But the idea of ‘soul’ does not sit entirely comfortably with me. It’s a little too intangible to be very useful and has many associations that are unhelpful in a gardening context. Still, I’ve been so fascinated with understanding what makes a gardening truly engaging for so long, I decided the only thing for it was to embark on a master’s degree; to put some objectivity and discipline into the question. If we can understand what really makes a garden engaging and share this widely enough, we have the potential for many more gardens to foster profound experiences and all their associated benefits.
I started with a definition of soul:
“emotional or intellectual energy or intensity”
which immediately began to pin down a more tangible focus for research.
I have read, read and read some more on this subject. I’ve read about design theory, place-making, beauty, philosophy, well-being, psychology and even physiology, both in the context of gardens and more broadly. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I’ve found little that directly relates to the passive experience of gardens (as opposed to the physical activity of gardening) but I have found learnings from other disciplines which has helped develop hypotheses. I’d love to test these with you now.
Clearly, all gardens are different (thank goodness) and all garden visitors are different, but I have aimed to develop common themes. My focus looks beyond the day trippers who love colour of any sort–and are, in truth, more interested in their lemon drizzle cake and a nice cup of tea–to explore gardens that deeply engage.
There are a number of areas I have investigated, including:
1. Why do plants have such a positive effect on us?
Theories range from the evolutionary dependency on plants; to the need to escape stimulation overload; the connection to cultural norms; and learnt responses; most of which are primarily subconscious processes and hence difficult to articulate. Understanding these more fully could help identify key characteristics that foster engagement.
2. Does the landscaping industry lead on best practice visitor engagement?
John Dixon Hunt states that ‘modern landscape design tends to narrowly focus on form, rather than on its effects or reception’, whilst Ogden and Ogden talk of ‘plant-deprived, homogenous landscape architecture curricula’. Andrew Wilson argued, back in the 1990s, that ‘modern design is not necessarily sterile and uncompromising’, but have we become a little formulaic in our approach?
3. What enables us to connect with a garden?
Does it have to be familiar in some way? Or perhaps completely unique? Philip Sheldrake appeals to us to connect ‘place, memory and identity’. Perhaps a garden needs to be quite personal in some way to really engage us.
So how do we create gardens that leave visitors captivated and with a yearning to return?
What are the characteristics that foster emotional and intellectual energy and intensity?
Today, I’m asking questions so you can inform the thinking. Next time, I’d love to share with you my conclusions.
In order to keep answers as scientifically robust as possible, I’d be super appreciative if you could share your thoughts via this short, 10-question survey today, rather than via a comment below. When I update you with my conclusions, I hope it provokes an energetic, open debate within this forum itself. Please click HERE for the survey; many, many thanks for taking part.
The survey closes on 22 March 2017.