The following piece was published as a perspective in the 2017 issue of con’text. Willa
Caughey ’14 (left, at a rooftop garden in Copenhagen), finished an MLA at the University of Copenhagen in September 2016. The image above is a section of a food forest from her thesis, The Phoenix Garden.
Walking out of the examination room after presenting my master’s thesis in September 2016, I was greeted by a warm cohort of friends popping champagne and placing plant trophies in my hands. That day was full of celebration, giving way to a period of reflection and gratitude—for my time at the University of Copenhagen, where I received a master of landscape architecture, and for the path that led me there.
I went to Conway to follow a passion, to pursue the education I wished I could find in a conventional landscape architecture program. I knew I would, in all likelihood, continue on to pursue an MLA, but I wanted the Conway experience to inform what followed. A confluence of factors led me to study in Copenhagen.
My first studio revealed an alarming clash between my professor’s abstract treatment of projects, and Conway’s commitment to analysis-based, real-world design solutions. I found myself struggling to communicate effectively and to figure out how the design identity I forged at Conway fit in here. Only when I had to explain to my confused classmates what a watershed was, did I begin to understand more tangibly the value of the Conway degree. I worked to integrate the best from each of my rich design educations, and this ultimately led me to evidence-based health design.
Evidence-based health design uses the best available research, along with institutional and user-based knowledge, to design for maximum health benefits and quality of life for users. In my thesis, I merge health design with ecological design. The Phoenix Garden presents a vision for an evidence-based therapeutic garden for incarcerated youth in San Mateo County, California. Designed for a largely Latino, socioeconomically disadvantaged population with a disproportionate share of psychiatric disorders, the garden uses naturalistic spaces to address psychiatric conditions and learning differences and works with the unique serpentine soil to restore valuable habitat.
To a Conway graduate in relentless pursuit of the so what? an evidence-based approach may sound obvious. But in the field of landscape architecture, where poetic language and sun-drenched visualizations can be a substitute for substance, it has profound implications. Incorporating qualitative and quantitative evidence from a defined group of users—be they individuals with dementia or those in need of physical activity and stress reduction—increases the ability for landscapes to support and enhance the health and well-being of our population, and elevates the field of landscape design.