Living in the green is healthy. But how green are our healthcare institutions?

Image: A therapeutic path laid out in the garden of VZW Finally, surrounded by a flower meadow. Credit: Gert Arijs.

In our densely populated society in which many people live in the city, greenery is no longer a natural part of your immediate living environment. Green is the “vitamin G” that our society is deficient in. Research shows that even just the view of a green environment decreases stress, increases our attention and improves our mood. When we have access to greenery, we also become more interested in physical activities, resulting in better physical health and a lower risk of obesity. The elderly remain active longer and children play in a more creative and varied way in a natural environment. Observing green also has a positive effect on the healing process. Gardens around healthcare institutions are therefore ideal locations to create a green environment.

What opportunities do gardens offer our nature?

At the same time, research shows that gardens, and in particular gardens that pay attention to nature, can provide great added value for biodiversity. Gardens can serve as a connection between natural areas but can also provide a home to many species including frogs, hedgehogs, butterflies and birds! No less than twelve percent of the total surface of Flanders consists of private gardens. This is more than the total forest area (10%)! In a highly fragmented Flanders, our gardens are therefore extra important.

A survey at healthcare institutions

Gardens around care institutions therefore offer opportunities for people and nature. That is why we wanted to research the ecological value of greenery around Flemish care institutions and whether there is support for increasing biodiversity in these gardens, if necessary. My master’s thesis at the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering (UGent) provides supporting research within the PWO project Biodivers care greenery, a multifunctional project in which research is conducted into the design, construction and management of biodiverse restorative care gardens.

On the basis of a survey, answered by 915 healthcare institutions, we checked whether they are interested in the effects of biodiverse green elements on care recipients and care providers and whether there is interest in increasing biodiversity in their gardens. The current use of the gardens was also questioned. Finally, specific questions were also asked about the presence of 21 different green elements in order to get an idea of ​​the current state of the care gardens.

Is there support for biodiversity around healthcare institutions?

Yes! More than three quarters of healthcare institutions indicate that they are interested in the effect of biodiverse green elements. No less than seventy percent of healthcare institutions are also interested in adding one or more green elements in their garden. Although there is a clear interest in the effects of greenery, the garden is only used to a limited extent for care. Most healthcare institutions (87%) offer free access to their garden, but only one in three healthcare institutions consciously use their garden as part of the therapy. At just over half of these healthcare institutions (58%) someone from the healthcare team is actively involved in using greenery as part of the healthcare provision.

Is there already (biodiverse) greenery around healthcare institutions?

96 percent of the health care institutions surveyed have greenery on their premises. Trees, lawn and shrubs were found to be most abundant in care gardens. No less than 89 percent of the care gardens contain one or more trees! Forests, flower meadows, dead wood and green roofs are present in less than twenty of the care gardens (see figure 1). To estimate the biodiversity in the gardens, we look at the variation in green elements, among other things. The more different green elements, the better! On average, there are nine green elements in the gardens. Only two percent of the healthcare institution has only one green element in the garden, which turned out to be mainly lawn.

The number of different vegetation layers (low, medium and high) present in the garden is an indication of the vertical structure variation. Research at the University of Sheffield shows that this vertical structure variation offers added value for all species that naturally come into your garden (birds, mammals, etc.) by providing different resources such as nesting places, food and water. Many healthcare institutions (61%) have all three layers of vegetation in their garden. The low vegetation layer (flower meadow, flower border or grassland) occurs least in care gardens (65%). The green lawn element was not included as low vegetation, as this element does not add value to the vertical structure in the garden.

The potential of Biodivers Green Care in Flanders

The survey shows that there are opportunities for healthcare and for nature around healthcare institutions. Many care institutions are interested in the effects of biodiversity on care recipients and care givers, but only use their gardens to a limited extent as part of therapy. In addition, there is also interest in increasing biodiversity in their gardens and there is still a lot of room for growth! Only one percent of healthcare institutions have all 21 green elements in their garden. Although many care gardens already score optimally on vertical structure variation, the low vegetation appears to be least present in care gardens.

A green element that we believe has a lot of potential is the flower meadow. Flower meadows are currently only present to a limited extent in care gardens, but can be a fairly easy win-win for people and nature. Not only do they provide scents and colors in your garden, but they also provide food and shelter for many animal species! The large presence of lawn shows that there is sufficient space for flower meadows in gardens around Flemish care institutions.

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