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Mark’s publishing career came to an end when he was injured in a car accident. With the help and encouragement of occupational therapists at the Stanmore Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital he’s built a successful new career that has gardens, gardening and contact with nature at its core.
When designing a garden, Mark’s aim is to make it inclusive – a universal design for everyone, irrespective of disability. ‘It’s a longer and more difficult process than designing for a particular condition’ he admits ‘but I start by taking everyone into account and then work my way forward’. It’s an approach that moves away from any sense of division and otherness and instead demonstrates that we all benefit equally from spending time in nature.
Mark has experienced life without and with a wheelchair. Perhaps as a result, he is particularly sensitive to the problems that a lack of awareness in garden design can create, no matter how good the intentions. ‘Try sitting in a wheelchair for a week’ he says, ‘you’ll soon learn the limits of what can or can’t be done’.
‘Think about the way a design transitions from one area to another. For example, when two materials meet do they form a lip? Will levels change as materials weather? ‘Even a 5ml change in height will stop a wheelchair’.
‘Make sure to include a range of benches rather than just one. There are too many stylish benches that are of little practical use’ he points out. ‘Not everyone can sit on a hard surface so think about including several made from different materials’.
‘Make sure there’s space around benches too – not just for wheelchairs but also for buggies and prams. How often do we find a bin right next to a bench? It makes it difficult to have a conversation with anyone sitting in a wheelchair. I often have to position my chair with my back to the view so that I can hear what friends sitting on a bench are saying’.
Another common mistake is to assume that raised beds are ideal for wheelchair users because they are easy to reach. ‘They might be at the right height, but unless people can turn their upper body they’re impossible to use’ says Mark. ‘Raised tables are a much better idea. A wheelchair can be tucked underneath without the need for swivelling from the waist’.
Mark isn’t sure that we need the term ‘healing gardens’. ‘Gardens are for the wellbeing of everyone’ he says. ‘We could do with horticultural therapists going into every space that people use, whether it’s a hospital, an office or a school and finding ways to reconnect us with nature. Let’s get everyone putting their hands in the soil and make sure that government and the NHS really see the benefits.’
Whether we see ourselves as designers, hands-on gardeners or just enjoy being outside, Mark advises us to take time to sit and reflect – to notice colour and texture and the way that things move. ‘Unless we do, there’s a danger that gardening becomes just another job that has to be done’ he says.
Mark’s career might not have followed the path he’d once imagined but he says he wouldn’t change a thing. ‘Life is better now. I spend my time in gardens and meeting interesting people. Best of all, I have the chance to share my love of plants and to talk about the difference gardening can make’.
Image © Mark Lane
There are many different kinds of gardens and landscapes that facilitate health and wellbeing. The network embraces all projects and examples ranging from hospices, hospitals, care homes, clinics, prisons, community gardens, cancer centres as well as nature based therapeutic work such as Ecopsychology and horticulture therapy. Landscape is taken in its broadest sense, embracing the natural and designed environment, highlighting its many relationships to human health and wellbeing.