Singapore’s Therapeutic Gardens: Corners of Calm

Amid the grinding cranes, bustling crowds and zipping cars of Singapore lie garden enclaves carefully designed to improve the mental health of Singapore’s residents, particularly its elderly. Called Therapeutic Gardens, they offer oases of tranquility in one of Asia’s busiest cities. By Sheila Berman

SINGAPORE, 10 October 2017. Designed to provide an area for rest and relaxation while stimulating the senses through bright colours, subtle floral scents, gurgling waters and alternating plant textures, Singapore’s Therapeutic Gardens are carefully laid out, filled with various flora and gardening implements. Situated within existing parks, they are designed to offer space, peace, and stimulation to visitors from across the island.

The Gurgling Vase is a favourite with visitors to the tranquil garden at Hort Park in Singapore.

The Gurgling Vase is a favourite with visitors to the tranquil garden at Hort Park in Singapore.

Prompted by the country’s ageing population, the National Parks Board (NParks) saw a need to provide an alternative form of therapy that could help old people cope with age-related illnesses. Based on the findings of a joint study with the National Health University System to determine the effects of a horticultural therapy programme on the elderly, NParks launched its first Therapeutic Garden in Hort Park in May 2016.

Hort Park was soon followed by two other gardens: in Tiong Bahru Park and in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. According to an NParks spokesperson, NParks worked with the community to develop the gardens to provide respite and improve the mental well-being of all visitors, including seniors. “The gardens are not only designed with elderly-friendly features, but also to alleviate the onset of dementia through therapeutic horticulture,” said the spokesperson.

As a follow up, a special Horticulture Programme was launched in September 2017 at the three locations. Led by trained guides, the programme involves plants and nature-related activities specially tailored for the elderly. The key goals of the project were to promote low intensity exercise and improve motor skills; to stimulate memory; to encourage positive social interactions and connections with nature; and to promote what the program managers call ‘mindfulness.’

Serene and green

I first visited the Hort Park Therapeutic Garden. I arrived at the 850m2 garden next to the established Edible Garden. Despite the beating sun, rumbling car engines, and the sounds of nearby construction, the Restorative Zone proved to be a serene place. Benches were tucked neatly in little corners around the gazebo, with giant metal chimes and 1.5m tall vases murmuring water. Birds chirped and played hide and seek among the foliage while tall shrubs swayed in the breeze.

The gardens are designed with elderly-friendly features [and] therapeutic horticulture,
— NParks

Sitting in the gazebo, my eyes wandered over the orange trellis, the green foliage, and the yellow-orange birds of paradise. Being this close to nature reminded me of what American biologist Edward O. Olsen proposed in his work “Biophilia” (1984): that people have a genetic predisposition towards nature and other life forms.

Considering that the number of Singaporean residents aged 65 years and above rose by 0.6% in 2017 to approximately 730,000, there seems to be an urgent need for this kind of urban garden. In percentage terms, some 13% of the island’s 5.6 million people would be potential customers for their tranquillity.

Singapore’s initiative echoes other pioneering developments in other parts of the world where therapeutic gardens use similar principles to promote healing and awareness. Romania’s first Therapeutic Garden, launched in 2014 at Mocrea Psychiatric Hospital in Arad County, has a gardening area where patients are given specific tasks in caring for the plants. And in New York, the rooftop Joel Schnaper Memorial Garden in East Harlem has been laid out and cultivated to focus on the specific restorative needs of HIV patients.

Tiong Bahru includes a Foot Reflexology pathway.

Tiong Bahru includes a Foot Reflexology pathway.

From Hort Park, I went to the Tiong Bahru Park. In contrast to the calmness of the previous park, Tiong Bahru had a frenetic energy, encouraging movement and activity. Streams of cars rushed along the two streets that bound the park, and children worked out on the exercise equipment in a fitness corner. Its layout was simple; benches were scattered around the 750m2 space to provide different views of the garden. As well as plants of varied colours, scents, and textures, customised benches and raised planter beds enabled wheel-chair bound visitors to participate in gardening.

Unlike Hort Park, there were no musical chimes. Instead it offered Fragrance, Biodiversity, Edibles and Medicinal, and Colours and Textures zones. Each had specific and related vibrant, textured plants with the Biodiversity zone adding to the flora with special butterfly and bird-attracting plants.

Bamboo wind chimes at Hort Park add to the calming atmosphere.

Bamboo wind chimes at Hort Park add to the calming atmosphere.

Although the sun was fierce, the shaded areas were few. One enterprising visitor had laid out her sheet to dry under the sun underneath one of the resting buildings. She watched me as I tried in vain to photograph tiger butterflies flitting among the flowers. I eventually gave up and said goodbye to the park, but not until I investigated a narrow intimate pond with koi and turtles swimming below the surface.

Expanding areas

Already, thanks to an upsurge of interest in the benefits of special parks, NParks’ Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology (CUGE) is to offer a Certificate in Therapeutic Horticulture in December 2017. The 12.5 days programme, conducted over a period of three months, is open to all who are interested to pick up skills in therapeutic horticulture, such as healthcare and social care practitioners, as well as landscape designers, managers and horticulturists. 

Additionally, NParks has introduced its new Learning Forest Project, a 10-hectare restoration project for the lowland forest and wetland habitats that used to surround the Singapore Botanic Gardens. As part of the project, NParks will encourage the community to participate in an associated Citizen Science programme.

Bishan Ang Moh Kio garden uses a special figure eight layout as part of its calming design.

Bishan Ang Moh Kio garden uses a special figure eight layout as part of its calming design.

The last of the Singapore gardens, at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio, is the biggest of the three at 900m2. A loud screeching of cicadas accompanies visitors through the main park, then, nestled within the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Pond Garden greeneries is the Therapeutic Park. The noise from surrounding roads and a large tranquil body of water buffer the sounds from the road. The park was built with a S$500,000 donation from Woh Hup (Pvt) Limited, one of Singapore’s largest privately-owned construction and civil engineering groups. 

Following on the simple design of the other two gardens, the garden path is wide and followed a figure eight configuration. It is split into four zones like Tiong Bahru, and is similarly fitted with sports equipment and raised planters. A lotus pond is within walking distance, conducive for meditation and self-reflection. And so far, user feedback has been positive.

“I (love gardening) because it helps me pass the time, and you feel happy doing it,” said Loy Boon Ngeow, 71, in a Today Online interview. Likewise, Soh Moh Chun, 83, was quoted by SPH media as noting that it made her happy to be outdoors in the gardens, “ . . . and to see the beautiful flowers.”

As a result of the popularity of the new therapeutic gardens and their positive impact on local people, more are planned by NParks. “We will continue to develop a network of therapeutic gardens in parks across [the island], including an upcoming garden in Choa Chu Kang Park,” added NParks.

All photos by Sheila Berman