University of Tennessee CoAD = MLA Student | Cameron Rodman

All things Landscape.

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    Exploring the Intersection of Design, Landscape, & Psychotherapy - An empirical based approach.

    By CameronRRodman
    Jul 7, '14 2:25 PM EST

    This past semester (Spring 2014) I and my studio-mates had the wonderful opportunity to work with Harmony Adoptions an organization which focuses on connecting families with children through adoption. They have an extremely high success rate of placement and are doing some wonderful programs and counseling in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains just outside of Maryville, TN. This was a very serendipitous opportunity as my previous graduate degree was in professional counseling and marriage and family therapy.

    Our studio wrapped up the works of a previous studio and was additionally tasked to create a master plan for the site. As usual each of the team members chose something to work on. I choose to work on very general design guidelines for trails and elected to focus in more detail on integrating what I saw to be the three key assets of the Camp Montvale property.

    Camp Montvale serves as an extension of Harmony Adoptions. The camp, at one time a YMCA summer camp, has become a beacon of hope to children and families regionally and across the US. I saw a lot of potential for the site design and really wanted to harness the ingenuity of landscape architecture in a way which supported the therapy taking place.

    So with this in mind I set out to understand the therapy types being used by the counseling staff. I also began to research how design can influence the perception and moods of people. Lastly, I researched how people perceive their world through the natural environment.

    I researched in a variety of ways. Some were very formal. I read through peer-reviewed journal articles from the mental health field. I searched the web for trends in topics like forest bathing and forest kindergarten. I looked into the play of children and how people perceive space and nature. My most fruitful efforts came through conversations with mental health design professionals on a LinkedIn forum (group). They were most helpful by helping me understand the details of certain aspects of design and pointing me to resources unknown to me. The conversation which ensued was very engaging and very open to confrontation of traditional understanding and practice. I think this was essential to breaking beyond a superficial understanding of how mental health design facilitates healing, which is a topic I think most people gloss over by generalizing and claiming the restorative benefits of nature and natural things.

    So to summarize the above – I created a venn diagram which showed the three most important layers to designing a healing landscape. I will acknowledge that this is a very Western methodology as our Western culture is becoming very formulaic in our knowledge and evidence. I believe this is a result of many factors – but in the mental health world and design world (or health and safety) a result of insurance and litigation.

    The three primary topics for influencing my design are these:

    1.       Psychotherapeutic Theories

    2.       Foundations of Design

    3.       Effects and Perceptions of Nature

    These three items overlapped to create topics germane to the design and research. They are

    1.     Mixing #1 and #2 = Topic // Designing to Heal

    • Creates a great conversation on how the way we design affects the healing process

    2.     Mixing #1 and #3 = Topic // Nature as Healing

    • Creates a great conversation on the healing and restorative effects of nature.

    3.      Mixing #2 and #3 = Topic // Nature by Design

    • Creates a great conversation on how we can mimic or harness natural ‘design’ found in nature, in man-made design. This focus is on perception and awareness.

    It was an understanding of these three items which would eventually lead to formal and informal sensory stations which were found centrally located in the camp and dispersed throughout the camp so as to accommodate impromptu therapy sessions or de-escalating interventions.

    A second graphic I created places this design process in a linear flow for better understanding.

    1.       Therapy Goals and Theories


    2.       Guiding Principles for Design

    Leveraging design principles and nature to generate

    3.       Sensory Stations and Interventions

    Once this frame work was created I then moved into design and began reviewing the previously conducted site inventory and analysis.

    The resulting designs were two formal centralized sensory stations and numerous informal dispersed sensory stations. The staff at Montvale made the request that we design something which:

    1.       facilitated vestibular and proprioceptor stimulation

    2.       was a convertible space which opened to the outdoors

    3.       allowed for groups to circle up

    Design 1 is a formal centralized sensory station meaning, it is sited near the counseling center and has elements which are used consistently as a dynamic part of therapy. Most all of the elements in the crash and bump playground engage youth in sensory experiences and proprioceptive and vestibular activities.

    One interesting point of discussion for this area is the chart which identifies the types of experiences a child will have while in the playground. These play elements were also specifically chosen based on Margaret Kernan’s 2006 research on ‘Children’s priorities in their outdoor play.’ All of her six priorities are found in the playground.

    Furthermore, a set of guiding principles are provided which should aid the camp or other outside groups in developing additional facilities with similar benefits. This framework is more important than the design as it sets the program within the context of the facility and goals which are adoptive therapy.

    Design 2 is another formal centralized sensory station. This design however is a site ‘first’ with an accompanying building. Working from the design requests, I considered the needs of the client and sought how a programed structure could be sited within a designed landscape.

    This design was a lot of fun. I explored monastic cloisters, Greco-Roman peristyles, and Japanese architecture as design precedents.

    It was important that the entry to the building be cited on the edge of the woods. This provides visitors with a feeling of entering the woods and not just a building. This edge condition becomes a threshold which signifies a departure and simultaneously an entering into a safe place or refuge. As they travel through a hallway they are decompressed from the outside environment and into an interior courtyard (peristyle/cloister/courtyard).  The three other hallways lead out, or rather further in, into the forest interior where patients, visitors, and guests can walk through a naturalized garden setting. Eight rooms encompass the courtyard with an extended deck and shading roof elements.

    The courtyard is also a sensory station, well, really a new counseling center. But senses are focused on here. I looked into color theory a bit and looked at studies of human perceptions of nature. One example I was directed towards was Nacadia, which was designed by Ulrika K. Stigsdetter. It is a mental health facility for veterans. Being mindful of my findings I used the shaded lighting from the overhead tree canopy and shading structural elements. I was also mindful of the ground textures and how they create a change in pace and sensation when transitioning from paver courtyard, to wood deck, to gravel paths, etc. Color in the courtyard was comprised of blues and purples to generate calm emotions.

    One thing which I was excited about was that this location was chosen because the previous structure at this location was the well house. I thought it would be nice to restore this artifact by creating four water features in the center of the courtyard. These are not in the very middle though. They are broken into four raised planters which divide the space into four private seating areas and one group circle up area. As groups circle up in the middle of this courtyard they are surrounded by these four water features. The sound of a natural element is calming and also creates a white noise which helps mask the conversations of the courtyard visitors.

    The ability to meet in the center of the courtyard is distinctly different from the Peristyle and Cloister. A Cloister was designed to allow a monk to walk around a space and look into the interior while contemplating and praying. The center was not for inhabiting. The Greco-Roman Peristyle was a formal garden. While people could enter the interior space, the middle was often occupied with a fountain or focus piece. Here, in this design, the center has been freed for use by people. Here people are the focus.

    Most organizations in today’s day in age have to generate extra income to support their primary purpose. The primary purpose for the rooms surrounding the courtyard is therapy (individual, family, and group) and housing office staff. Secondary purposes such as events and leadership training could be accommodated in these spaces. Sliding walls both on the interior (between rooms) and on the exterior (opening into the gardens) help open up the space for large numbers and greater connection to nature.

    Design 3 is a series of informal dispersed sensory stations. They were conceived to accommodate a variety of situations which could pop up while walking the site with a client. I really wanted to utilize the landscape and think about ways in which a therapist could take clients out of a building and into nature. Numerous studies have proven the beneficial effects of nature on peoples physical, emotional, and psychological health.

    I figured if this is true, why not take therapy outside?

    The stations are designed to be easy to build and small. This way they can be driven in by a four wheeler and used by any person on staff. If a child is escalating I wanted a solution to be present in the woods for the counselor to use to help de-escalate the child. There are at least two ways this can take place. If a child is escalating during a walk and nothing is around but this station, they now have a solution.

    But more than having physical solutions, it is important for staff to understand that solutions are everywhere. If a family or group of clients is at a campsite and setting up while an child starts to escalate, things exist presently which can help. Setting up a tent, raising the family crest, or swinging are all simple ways to help the child calm down.

    Design 4 is an attempt to understand and utilize a person’s perception of space and the landscape. I developed a series of images/icons which show how a simple platform can be placed in a variety of landscapes. This platform can have mood altering affects which are different from person to person. For instance, some people may sit in a forested valley and feel comforted and secure while others may feel closterphobic. The important thing here is the availability of these on site and ensuring that visitors know their location. Counseling staff can also assign visits to these locations.

    Well that’s it for now. I think this could turn into a really interesting paper or theory or something but I currently don’t have the time myself, so it is, for now, one more piece to help us understand our relationship to design, nature, and healing.

    I will also upload some of the designs, graphics, and my notes. They are most likely un-edited due to time constraints.  I hope to edit them soon for my portfolio.

    Please feel free to contact me with any questions or to share your thoughts at


    You can find more of my works and thoughts


    • Wonderful the place is perfect for retreat.

      Jul 15, 14 3:50 pm  · 

      love this (group of) project(s) and the way you explored the connections between nature, experiential design and therapy/counseling...

      also, pardon my ignorance but shouldn't it be "Venn diagram" not "vin"?

      Jul 16, 14 6:40 pm  · 

      Thanks for correction Nam. It is Venn. Thanks for the compliments as well Edward and Nam. If you want more info on therapeutic design and designing with nature check out the ASLA Pro Practice Network 'Healthcare & Therapeutic Design'. We had a great group conversation on the topic.


      Jul 25, 14 12:42 pm  · 

      You can also find more studio work here and my continuous blog on my site:

      Jul 25, 14 12:47 pm  · 

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I currently maintain a blog which features monthly firm interviews about their firm and specific projects in the Knoxville or near Knoxville area. Readers can also find information on photography, current trends in representation, or even social equality issues.

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