Parks That Connect You to Nature Through All Your Senses

January 1, 2016, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

A portion of the Braille Trail and Sensory Garden at the Watertown Riverfront Park — Massachusetts Department of Recreation and Conservation.Much has been written about the “soft fascination” of nature, namely the state of heightened awareness and increased receptivity that descends on people who are immersed in a nature experience, such as dangling your feet in a flowing stream or sitting on a bench watching a sunset. These good feelings and relaxed state of perception, described best by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in their book, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective, have been credited with lowering blood pressure, increasing cognitive ability and reducing stress among other mental, physical and even spiritual health benefits. E.O. Wilson, the famous naturalist and sociobiologist, developed a theory called the Biophilia Hypothesis in which he contends that humans subconsciously seek connections with other living things and all of nature, and these desires are deeply rooted in the human condition.

Scientists and researchers continue to study the physiological and psychological basis of the soft fascination of nature, but anyone who has spent time outdoors in nature knows that the experience is intensified and made more memorable when nature is experienced with more than one of your senses. In fact, there is significant scientific evidence that demonstrates some of the strongest memories we have are not just those of sight and sound, but rather, those of touch, taste and, peculiarly, smell. Simply stated, the more senses that are involved in apprehending reality, the more powerful and memorable the experience.

A number of park and recreation agencies and landscape design firms are incorporating this principle into the design of interpretive and educational exhibits in parks and some have gone so far as to creatively develop gardens and trails that allow the park visitor a full range of sensory experiences. Such exhibits can be as simple as trail-side plantings of plants with unique smells, to more elaborate gardens like the Fragrance Garden at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, to complete gardens that immerse visitors in sights, smells, sounds and touches.

In the Mill Creek community of Batavia Park District in Illinois, the local community was initially resistant to converting undeveloped open space into more intensive recreational uses. After meetings with the public, an idea emerged from stakeholders to address the needs of people from the nearby Marklund Home, a training center for the developmentally disabled. This recommendation was consistent with the desires of the community, says Michelle Kelly, landscape architect and principal of Chicago-area-based Upland Design Ltd. A convening that included representatives from a Special Needs group from the Fox Valley Recreation Association that serves a number of park districts in this area of Illinois was instrumental in making recommendations for the design of a sensory garden in the South Mill Creek Community Park. They recommended that the eventual design place special emphasis on appealing to all of the senses, both for the general public and the residents of Marklund Home, Kelly says. 

The result was a sparkling little sensory garden built adjacent to a children’s playground, so both children and adults could enjoy the sounds, smells and sights of the garden. “We are getting better at making play areas more appealing,” Kelly says. “They are not just about physical play anymore, but learning and socializing, and using all your senses.”

Many sensory gardens in parks have been established as a result of connections to people with disabilities or the presence of institutions in or near community parks. The Massachusettes Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has been working on development of a riverfront park along the Charles River in Watertown, Massachusetts, for a number of years. Dan Driscoll, the director of recreational facilities for DCR, said the proximity of the site to the internationally known Perkins School for the Blind led them to propose a braille trail and sensory garden for a section of the riverfront park. 

A group of organizations, including Friends of Watertown Waterfront, the town of Watertown, the Lawrence and Lillian Solomon Fund and others, partnered with DCR to create a special sensory garden and braille trail within the riverfront park. The park was designed by the nationally known Sasaski Associates, which is located in Watertown.

Designing a park to serve the blind and visually impaired presented some unique challenges, according to Driscoll. Working with the Perkins School, the state park system and the design firm DCR tried to create a linear park and sensory garden that would allow access to totally blind people, as well as be interesting and enjoyable to the general public. 

Among the features of the Watertown Riverfront Park and Braille Trail Project — expected to formally open to the public in the spring of 2016 — are interpretive signs that enable the general public and the developmentally disabled, with support from caregivers, to experience the full range of sensory inputs of nature as well fun interactive exhibits, such as a marimba bench made with dense hardwood to make natural music. 

In addition to sound and touch, the Watertown Riverfront Park and Braille Trail Project also incorporates fragrant native plants such as bayberry and sweet fern, and edible plants like blueberries, when they are in season. Driscoll notes that caution must be observed when encouraging the public to taste, touch or smell any plant in a sensory garden or along the trail. Along with the fragrant plants, Driscoll said that having the expertise of Sasaki Associates and design consultants Chester Engineering allowed them to include several innovations based on bio-engineering principles, such as shape-keyed activity markers and placing braille plaques at a specific height and angle to be fully accessible to the blind. “This site has become one of the most popular spots of the entire Charles River Restoration project,” Driscoll says. 

You can start small or go big. No matter how you engage park visitors’ senses, the experience of the soft-fascination of nature is one of the most pleasurable you can have from time spent outdoors. Involving as many of your senses as possible can make those experiences memories for a lifetime.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.