In the heart of busy New Haven, Conn., is a little piece of tranquility for patients going through chemotherapy treatment at Smilow Cancer Hospital. In fact, the Betty Ruth and Milton B. Hollander Healing Garden, perched on top of a seventh floor setback of a 14-story building, has become a defining feature of the hospital’s overall design.

When the client proposed the idea of a healing garden, landscape architects and planners Towers|Golde LLC (New Haven, Conn.) initially went in the direction of a modern, high-style landscape design. “The ‘aha’ moment wasn’t until we had our first meeting with a group of cancer survivors,” says Bob Golde, partner and principal on the project. “The overall impression we walked away with was, ‘Don’t give us something that looks designed. What we want is what we see out our back door. We don’t want to feel like we’re in a big, urban medical center.’”   

That insight inspired the Towers|Golde team to switch gears. Rather than following the original slick, contemporary design approach, the firm decided on a more organic and natural aesthetic. The resulting design won Gold in the acute care category of the inaugural Landscape Architecture for Healthcare Communities Awards from Vendome Healthcare Media (parent company of Healthcare Design).

Since many of Smilow Cancer Hospital’s patients come from suburban communities, the designers felt that a pastoral garden style would have more appeal, says Channing Harris, senior associate and project manager.

To accomplish this, a variety of seating benches were dispersed throughout the plan in semi-hidden spaces that could be used by small groups or individuals wanting more solitude. The benches were custom designed in tropical hardwood or a combination of wood and steel, some in crescent shapes to define more private areas.

Sections of Ipe wood decking visually break up the seating areas and are reminiscent of a backyard landscape. The curvilinear nature of the garden path also works to make certain spots cozier and more private, while at the same time highlighting various aspects of the garden itself.

A combination of plants was used—from witch hazel and evergreens to shrub forms and grasses—to make the garden green year-round. Because of the garden’s rooftop location, drought- and wind-resistant plants were included, too.

The facility also wanted to incorporate pieces of sculpture into the design. Due to the subjective nature of art, the designers were tasked with finding universally calming pieces.

When a hospital administrator who’s also involved with the Bonsai Society of Greater New Haven suggested that the group help procure plants for the project, the team decided that bonsai trees were a perfect sculptural yet natural element to blend in with the design. Bonsai trees now sit atop granite-clad platforms near seating areas, with the platforms allowing a permanent location for other sculpture pieces to be rotated through the space in the future.

The focal point of the garden design, however, is a water feature and reflecting pool. “There are some wonderful boulders that frame the edges of the babbling brook that goes through the garden,” Harris says. “We surprised everyone when we told them they’re completely fake.”

Real boulders weren’t an option given their weight and the garden’s rooftop location, so the designers worked with a company that makes molds of rocks using a fiberglass-reinforced concrete and a unique painting system to create lightweight—and lifelike—hollow shells. By mingling the faux boulders with real rocks, stones, and gravel in the stream, the desired effect was achieved.

These elements and more are revealed to users as they progress through the garden along a single path that traverses the space. With a gentle rise of 18 inches from the entry to a wood and stone gazebo, the space is easily accessible to patients in wheelchairs or carrying IV poles, or even those in beds or on gurneys. The garden was also designed to be simple enough to take just a few minutes to explore—just enough time for those seeking just a quick breath of fresh air.

Serving as a peaceful retreat for the cancer unit’s staff, as well, the garden is also visible to surrounding facilities. But its effect on patients has been the most heralded result. “Hearing people you know who have been through cancer treatment talk about their experience in the garden and how it’s helped them is the most rewarding part,” says Golde.

For photos and details of the Silver and Bronze winners of the Landscape Architecture for Healthcare Communities awards program, see "Lauded Landscapes: Inspiring Views From Award-Winning Outdoor Spaces". For more information on and coverage of the 2013 program and for details on entering this year’s competition, visit


Margie Monin Dombrowski is a writer based in Southern California. She can be reached at