A Healing Garden in a Therapeutic Landscape

by Rebecca W. Flemer, Affiliate ASLA

William Hamilton (1745-1813) was born in Philadelphia to a wealthy family of colonial lawyers and politicians. Hamilton was an eminent botanist and plant collector, and made The Woodlands a New World model of contemporary English landscape gardening techniques. / image: William Russell Birch (1755-1834). “Woodlands, the Seat of Mr. Wm. Hamilton, Pennsylvania,” from Country Seats of the United States, 1808.

Visit any hospital or healthcare facility in North America and you are likely to find a “healing garden.” This may be a revamped courtyard or a purposely composed landscape designed to benefit patients and their caregivers. Preliminary plans are underway in the Dell area of Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia for a healing garden and green burial site. At first glance, a healing garden in a cemetery may appear to be counterintuitive. However, the institution’s founders and early patrons believed in the therapeutic influence of nature and current plans build on those ideals. Close to the city and multiple healthcare facilities, the garden will serve as a place to learn, heal, and reflect. Aaron Wunsch, Associate Professor in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jessica Baumert, Executive Director, have been discussing this plan with Cherie Eichholz, PhD, a social worker at the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center. Outlines for such a scheme also appear in the cemetery’s 2015 master plan.

The Woodlands, a 54-acre historic cemetery and estate, is located near the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia VA Hospital (The Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center). The surrounding neighborhood is a mixture of students and professors, with a daily influx of patients and visitors to the nearby medical complexes.

At just under an acre, the ruggedly overgrown north-eastern corner of the Woodlands is known as “The Dell.” Steep sloping ground—20 feet in depth—discouraged burials here. A stream, Middle Run, ran through the area and held a water collection tank which fed an early irrigation line. The area is part of a buffer around the cemetery protecting the grounds from the surrounding commotion of city traffic and noise.

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