We know that plants can filter the air, enhance aesthetics and boost performance, but did you know they can also reduce pain and stress levels and improve post-surgical recovery for hospital patients?

Roger Ulrich is one of the pioneers of the evidence-based healthcare design movement, which suggests that plants and nature may have a restorative effect on post-operative recovery and healing. His 1984 paper View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery was the first study of its kind to validate the notion that spending time in nature and experiencing a leafy, garden vista has the potential to reduce recovery periods from illness and surgery. In his study, 46 short-term surgical patients were split into two research groups; one group assigned to rooms with natural, garden views filled with plants, and one group assigned to similar rooms but with views to a plain brick wall. The benefits of staring at nature were clear; the 23 patients in the rooms with a garden view had shorter recovery times, spent less time in hospital post-surgery, took fewer strong medications and had fewer post-operative side effects such as nausea and headaches. Other research also supports this finding, such as the results of a 2009 study by Seong-Hyun Park and Richard Mattson which concluded that plants have restorative and therapeutic effects on the health of surgical patients in hospital environments.

At the heart of these studies is E.O Wilson’s biophilia theory which is centred on humans’ innate and evolutionary attraction to other living organisms, such as plants. Considering this affinity with nature and the impact that our surroundings have on our health and wellbeing, it is vital that the built environment, and in this particular case, hospitals, are designed with the emotional needs of the patient in mind. Imagine being confined to a small, uncomfortable hospital bed, surrounded by other patients and flooded with harsh, artificial light all day, every day. Any walking you do is inside, in the traditionally stark, sterile and unwelcoming hospital environment and if you are lucky enough to get a bed next to a window, all you can see are concrete structures from every angle. Now contrast this with daily walks through peaceful gardens and hallways filled with verdant plants, or views out onto luscious natural landscapes. Which scenario do you think would make you feel better?

Leading hospital designers are beginning to adopt this research as a foundation in their healthcare design practices. Not only will this benefit the patients, but it will also provide the opportunity for immense cost savings into the future, as Ulrich strongly believes that good hospital design can save money, if approached from an evidence-based perspective, through shorter recovery times and patient stays in the long term.

Considering that many of today’s hospitals are situated in busy urban hubs, large, conventional gardens may be unrealistic and unachievable due to insufficient space. The solution? Think vertical! Living green infrastructure, such as green roofs, walls and facades, can provide the same mental, emotional and physical benefits as outdoor gardens without taking up valuable floor space. Incorporating living infrastructure into the initial design of buildings means that otherwise unused wall and roof space is given functional characteristics that have significant positive impacts on the health and wellbeing of hospital patients.

According to a recent article in the Scientific American, it only takes around five minutes spent gazing at scenes filled with plants to reduce pain and anxiety, feelings which are generally both experienced in the post-surgical recovery period. This fact, in conjunction with the countless studies by Ulrich and his peers, highlights the significant positive impact that plants and nature can have on healing and recovery and the role it plays in enhancing the health and wellbeing of human beings in general.

So let’s encourage the healthcare community to take this research on board and create functional and safe environments that focus on plants and nature as key components in the psychological, emotional and physical recovery of medical patients.


Inspiring Examples, in Australia and Abroad

Fiona Stanley Hospital, Australia – HASSELL

Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital, Australia – Conrad Gargett Lyons

Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Singapore – RMJM

Lennox Hill Hospital, USA – Kristin Monji (Garden Designer)

Mercy Medical Centre, USA – Mahan Rykiel Associates with AECOM

Stony Brook University Hospital, USA – University Department Collaboration