In Jerusalem is a garden for all the senses

BY WENDY ELLIMAN, IPS

A picture-wheel spins. Glass and mirrors enlarge, reduce and distort. Colorful cubes rotate. Chimes and bells peal in response to plucking or rotating. Heady scents waft from flowers, pungent aromas from a maze of spice plants. Flagstones underfoot are rough, shiny, textured or smooth. Different sensations are triggered by a curtain of strips of different materials, engulfing faces, hands and legs. And the whole 3,000 square meters of the garden, stretching down the side of a Jerusalem mountain, is traversed by slopes gentle enough for any wheelchair.

This unique garden, the Katie Manson Sensory Garden, is designed for the recreation and rehabilitation of Jerusalemites with physical and intellectual disabilities and will open in October 2006. Built by Israel Elwyn, an organization that supports individuals with special needs, the garden was partially funded through the Jerusalem Foundation, which strives to improve the quality of life for all the city’s residents.

“Our purpose in building the Katie Manson Sensory Garden is to help individuals with special needs localize and stimulate their different senses, and enhance the use of those senses,” says David B. Marcu, Israel Elwyn’s executive director. “It’s important for people with cognitive, sensory and physical impairments to develop their senses, and we seized on the opportunity of combining this rehabilitative activity with the enjoyment of outdoor space.”

This combination has, however, proven a major undertaking. The land Israel Elwyn had available for the garden was a mountainside with a height difference of three stories between top and bottom, making costly retaining walls and graduated ramps unavoidable. And, it soon turned out, Israel Elwyn’s vision — a garden to expand and develop multiple senses — did not exist anywhere else. A prototype would have to be created.

“There are therapeutic gardens worldwide focusing on one or two of the senses,” says Nurit Gordon, director of the Jerusalem Foundation’s British Desk. “This Jerusalem garden contains specially designed elements that are unique.”

The Jerusalem Foundation, which helped meet the nearly $1 million cost of designing, equipping and building the garden, raised a large part of the funding through a group of families from Manchester, England, led by the parents of the late Katie Manson, an adult who had special needs. An adjoining complex, Beit Joanna, is a project with which many of the donors are closely associated.

While the technical issues of land and financing were sorted out, the design of the garden itself was being incubated. “Our professional staff had a basic idea of what they wanted in the garden, and what they wanted it to achieve,” says Marcu. “To take us to the next stage, we went to Ilana Ofir.”

Ofir is an independent landscape architect. Formerly chief landscape artist with the Ministry of Housing, she helped draft the national building regulations that made public places wheelchair accessible. Her work with Israel Elwyn is, she says, work of the soul. “My aim was a calm, relaxed environment with easy access and orientation, clear geometrical links from one part to another, and lots of choice,” she says.

By spending time with the staff, she learned a great deal before beginning the design. “One of the first things I learned is that however limited their abilities, adults with special needs identify themselves as adults. The environment we were building could not, therefore, be a children’s playground, but a colorful and playful place that respects the adultness of the population using it.”

Within that concept, there were basic rules to observe. “Individuals with special needs often have orientation difficulties and become easily confused,” she says. “The trails in the garden can’t be too long, because if visitors can’t see to the end, they’ll stop in the middle. We had to find the ‘right’ length for a trail. We also had to ensure there were no hidden corners, so people are in sight of the support staff at all times.”

Ofir’s design also addresses issues that are especially problematic for individuals with special needs. “Steps are one example,” she says, “so I created steps of different heights to help people develop ‘step’ skills. Balance is another. We put down different materials on which to walk — gravel, smooth stones, soil — to help develop balance skills. We even used the handrails to help develop senses, making them different heights and thicknesses.”

A key concept of the garden is its four corners, each emphasizing a different sense (“We rejected a ‘taste’ corner,” says Marcu). To develop and furnish these Sight, Sound, Smell and Touch Corners, industrial designer Ido Bruno, an expert in mechanical interactive design, was called in.

“My remit was to take the basic ideas from different objects in the garden, follow through on them and make them accessible,” he says. “I began by getting to know the people who would use the garden and the aims of those who support them. I observed for hours, and became familiar with the very wide range of cognitive and physical disabilities that challenge these individuals. Only after that did I come up with ideas. Some of them were accepted, some rejected, some adapted. Then I began to build.”

Bruno’s ideas, refined with Israel Elwyn’s professional staff, were wide-ranging. In the Sight Corner, for example, a track consisting of different colors and shapes — geometric, flowing, spotted — runs along the ground. People walking the trail can pick out a shape or color to follow.

In the Touch Corner, the path is textured. “We saw that many visitors enjoy walking barefoot, so we built them a path with flagstones of different materials,” says Bruno. “There’s also a wooden beam, on which people can rub their backs. In the Smell Corner, interactive elements with strong and distinctive scents complement the flowers and herbs. For the Hearing Corner, I made a variety of chimes and bells, and an activity table which is itself a kind of string instrument with tubular bells that use the table for resonance.”

Noting that many individuals with special needs enjoy seated activities, Bruno has built an activity table into each corner of the garden, adapting it to the relevant sense. In the sight area, for example, the table has colored panels, which can be changed, and a magnifying glass.

With accessibility and safety emphasized, visitors can wander independently through the garden, or — for more intensive rehabilitation — be led by trained professionals, one-on-one or in groups. Its most regular patrons will be the 250 residents of the Israel Elwyn campus and 250 more who come each day to work in supported employment there. It will also be open to all Jerusalem’s residents with special needs — both schools and individuals. Many people with disabilities, especially those with more severe impairments, spend very little time out of doors. The Katie Manson Sensory Garden will contribute to improving their quality of life, believe Israel Elwyn and the Jerusalem Foundation.

Its benefits, they hope, will reach far further than Jerusalem. “The design of this garden and what it offers goes beyond anything that currently exists, certainly in Israel and probably worldwide,” says Gordon. “It will be presented at international conferences and hopefully replicated wherever it is needed. We here in Jerusalem are hugely excited about it and look forward to seeing it in use.”

“This project is exceeding our wildest expectation,” adds Katie’s father, Jonny Manson. “It is extremely comforting for our family to know that such a positive development has emerged following our tragic loss.”

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