Chelsea and Westminster Hospital is about as inner city as it gets: aside from its compact courtyard garden, there are no further opportunities to develop green spaces outside the hospital, situated as it is in Central London. With a bustling and traffic-heavy street outside the main entrance, the approach to the hospital feels far from the calm and tranquillity of the natural world. However, once you step inside, this all changes.
Chelsea and Westminster is an exceptional example of a site where the fundamental human need for sunlight and nature are integrated into the building’s design. Light floods in through the transparent, greenhouse-like roof, filtering down to the ground floor through the cleverly designed atrium, making the hospital building feel spacious and airy. Art installations are integrated throughout the hospital as well – but it is their indoor planting where the powerful wellbeing effects of plants and nature really shine through.
Indoor planting can have substantial positive impacts on the wellbeing of hospital staff and patients – as well as visitors. It can create green spaces of peace and tranquillity within a stressful environment, providing a refuge in which to decompress from medical stress or the pressures of a busy workday. For patients unable to venture outside, or staff too busy to, these spaces can provide some of the positive benefits of a connection with the natural environment – especially in a built up, inner city setting such as this.
“We always wanted to create an indoor garden”, says Christina Peumalu, the hospital’s Head of Participation, who oversaw the creation of CW+ Greenhaven*, one of the indoor planting spaces at the hospital. The local council were also keen on bringing green spaces inside the building, following the development of the outdoor courtyard garden. With the trustees in favour, the planting design began, led by renowned landscape artist and former psychologist and psychotherapist Jinny Blom.
Staff and patients were consulted as well as local community members to ensure that the participatory design and creation of the indoor garden suited everyone’s wants and needs, co-creating a resource for all to use. This was backed up by input from professionals who ensured that the plant selection suited the temperature and light variation the hospital experiences each day and throughout the seasons.
Of course, infection control also had to be involved, ensuring that the plants were safe to use, pest-free and wouldn’t cause allergic reactions.
A lot of planning, imagining and discussion: but the responses of staff and patients show that it has been worth it.
The indoor garden is a fantastic space to escape the clinical environment! Sitting between the plants helps me to relax and take time to process my day.
The tropical plants, with integrated seating areas and sleep pods where staff can rest and recharge, are located under the full height ‘bubble roof’ of the hospital, which lends the garden a greenhouse feel. It brings light and a sense of space into the garden and beautifies the overall hospital experience, with Greenhaven visible from walkways on multiple floors.
Arts in the garden
Greenhaven is integrated into the hospital’s wider arts programme – musicians and artists spend time with patients and staff, performing and working with them in the garden.
“We did a session where we had a dancer in a conservatory in one of the wards that had a lot of plants, and she was interacting with them – one of the musicians was playing music, she was responding to the music and the surroundings, and we had a group of patients that were painting and responding to it.” Christina emphasises the importance of these multisensory experiences to counter the boredom experienced by many hospitalised patients, especially older adults who don’t have personal devices in hospital with them.
For people who are lonely and isolated, this is our chance to get people together – it isn’t just medicine that makes you better.
Indeed, research demonstrates that interaction with foliage is important for older patients, reducing agitation and improving cognitive function. Physiotherapists also use the garden as a space in which to conduct therapy:
The green space … promotes active recovery and rehabilitation opportunities. Our patients enjoy getting out of the ward to work with the physiotherapy team in the garden.
ICU Sky Garden
Following on from this success, in 2021 the hospital created a new indoor green space: the ICU Sky Garden. This Mediterranean-themed garden, situated on the top floor of the hospital, is bathed in light from the transparent roof and alive with planting, designed as with Greenhaven, by Jinny Blom.
The Sky Garden prioritises needs of ICU patients and their families, and allows bedbound ICU patients to experience the healing power of nature without leaving the ward. Cleverly designed planting leaves space to wheel beds or wheelchairs into the garden, with secluded or expansive spaces to suit different types of meetings, and nap pods for staff to take a quick break from their working day. The space has been designed to visually transport people far away from an inner-London hospital, using vibrant Moroccan tiles on the benches, colourful ceramic pots planted with olives, bay trees and rosemary, and walls lined with climbing jasmine, filling the garden with a gentle scent.
The indoor space at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital has clearly become a key part of their overall design and development thinking. With many hospitals situated in inner city environments, with limited available space to create outdoor gardens, woodlands or meadows as they might wish, bringing nature indoors is an often-overlooked possibility that can transform the hospital stay experience for patients, improve the workspace quality for staff, and provide visitors with somewhere calming and peaceful to meet their hospitalised loved ones.
* CW+ is Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust’s official charity. It is responsible for most of the on-site green space and arts projects.