The Healing Garden

By Alex Walsh
Photos courtesy of thomasbiro.com

On January 25, New Jersey landscape architect Thomas Biro was awarded the 2009 “Honor Award” at the annual convention of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (NJASLA) in Atlantic City. Biro, whose business is based in Hillsborough, was honored for the rooftop therapy garden he designed and built at Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick. Prior to the construction of the new hospital, Biro worked with input from physicians, nurses, and therapists—who helped fundraise with families of the children to ensure the garden’s creation --to design a functional, therapeutic, and engaging garden. New Jersey Life recently had the chance to speak with Biro about the experience.

How did you end up on board with the therapy garden project?

I worked with Granary Associates, the project managers for the project, on another garden project for Robert Wood Johnson’s Children’s Hospital. We worked well together and they liked what I did on that project, so they asked me to design the Children’s Specialized Hospital Therapy Garden.


Was this your first therapy garden and will you continue to work on projects like this in the future?

This is my first therapy garden. There have been many studies verifying the healing qualities of gardens. It has been shown that people who have access to nature (even through a window) heal faster than people who do not. There are many professionals out there who have guidelines about what constitutes a healing garden. I, however, believe all gardens are healing gardens. The Children’s Specialized Hospital Therapy Garden not only provides access to nature but also has functional therapeutic elements. Different ground surfaces, steps, and a ramp allow patients with in wheel chairs and walkers to practice maneuvering in situations they may encounter in the outside world.


What type of landscape architecture do you and your associates normally create?

Our emphasis is on the design of the land. Most of the work we do is residential. We also design parks, office campuses, and municipal projects.


What inspired your design and plant choices?

The program requirements set out by the hospital were very ambitious, considering the size of the space and the fact that it was on a roof. It was my job, however, to make it not only functional but beautiful. I like working with curves. The garden is a series of curvilinear forms. I wanted to provide the opportunity to experience nature for those confined to the hospital. I chose plantings that had various color flowers, different textures, and interest throughout the seasons. The fountain and pond act as focal points of the garden. Playing with the globe fountain, feeding the fish, and caring for the plantings provide outdoor activities for the children, other than therapy. The planter walls also act as seats so staff can come out for breaks and families of the patients can get a respite from the stress of sometimes painful visits.


We know that you received input from doctors, nurses and therapists, what was the most valuable advice they gave you?

It was not so much the advice that the doctors, nurses and staff gave but their attitude and the atmosphere they created. Everyone I worked with expressed their love for their work and especially for the children they cared for. I never heard them refer to them as their patients but always as ‘our children’. They were very enthusiastic and supportive throughout the project. The worst thing said was “When is it going to be done?”


How long did it take to develop the concept and complete the project?

The project took nearly five years from its conception to completion. I met with the hospital staff during the design phase of the hospital and I designed the garden while the hospital was being built.


Would you say the garden’s functionality held prevalence over its aesthetic value or that those elements were of equal importance?

I would say that the garden’s aesthetic and functional values are intertwined. The function is to be able to experience the beauty of the outdoors and that in itself is therapeutic.


What was your biggest challenge on this project?

One of the challenges of this project was to fit all of the program requirements into this small area and to make it work on top of a roof. But I think the biggest challenge, the one I was most concerned with, was to at least meet and perhaps exceed the expectations of the people who wanted this garden and made it a reality. I hope I achieved that.


Is there any particular theme present in the garden’s design?

I wouldn’t necessarily say there is a theme to the garden. What I do like is that the garden is on the roof of an auditorium and is only five feet above street level. The city sidewalk runs adjacent to the garden with the churches and old buildings of New Brunswick acting as a backdrop. So, even though the garden is private, it has a connection to the city. Maybe that is the theme “A transition back to the outside world”.


I know you have received other awards prior to this most recent one, are you particularly proud of this honor?

I am particularly proud of this award. It was a lot of work and it took a long time to complete. But it is very rewarding to be able to provide a place where children who have been in accidents or who have a disability can escape their hospital environment and experience the joy of a garden.

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