April 28, 2021

Greening our Hospital Grounds for Health

By Rohan Harrison

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My roots in gardening

I have been involved in agriculture and gardening ever since I was young. My parents were commercial farmers in Jamaica, where I grew up inspired to study agriculture. Eventually I was hired to manage one of the largest government-owned farming operations in Jamaica, where I put my love for plants and the outdoors to use.

When I moved to Ontario in 1991 with my wife I started working in the lawn care industry. That was when I became interested in the connection between nature and healing, and the impact of plants on our health and welfare. In 2005 I became the team leader for the Grounds Department at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, where I care for 100 acres of land, including 32 acres of grass turf and over 4,600 trees.

Since then I've worked to optimize the ecological health of Sunnybrook's grounds, adopting 100% organic land care practices to build soil health that improves plant and tree health. I became an accredited 'Organic Horticulture Specialist' in 2018 through the Society for Organic Urban Land Care (SOUL). I truly believe that soil management, like food for humans, is the foundation for healthy, resilient and sustainable landscapes.

Rohan Harrison, by Doug Nicholson

What I Do

Every day, staff, patients and their families escape, reflect and heal in the green spaces around the hospital. Along with my team, I work to provide a biodiverse and beautiful landscape for them. My work is part of the continuation of treatment for patients at Sunnybrook and for prevention and care for our entire community. From what I've read and experienced firsthand, I know that landscapes are important places for restorative and preventative healing.

One special place for me at Sunnybrook is the Rohan Harrison Healthy Garden, which was named in my honour after I participated in Sunnybrook’s episode of Undercover Boss. I designed and created it as a fully accessible active and passive garden space to stimulate all the senses. Once I met a woman there whose husband had just passed away, and she told me being in nature at that moment was a huge comfort. Knowing the landscape helped her at that difficult time was my crowning moment.

Rohan and hospital staff planting trees

I initiated Earth Day celebrations at Sunnybrook in the early 2000's, which invite staff and our community outside to learn and recreate in our extensive green spaces. Activities include clean-ups, identification of focused green spaces and sharing about our hospital’s green initiatives like ride share and bike-to-work. These events in our arboretum, healing gardens and nature paths raise awareness about the connection between health and healthy environments.

In 2014 I established an annual event in September to celebrate National Tree Planting Day, called “Healing Trees”. Our goal is to increase the tree canopy by planting native tree species and engage staff, supporters and the wider community on the ecological services provided by trees and a healthy urban forest ecosystem. We collaborate with businesses, politicians, community supporters and others who share a common vision to support natural environments for the benefit of humans and other species.

Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto

The power of Sunnybrook’s green grounds

Our landscapes have the potential to heal. This statement is echoed by Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre—we’re proud of the relationship people have with our green spaces.

Research tells us that real or simulated views of nature play a valuable role in human health and wellbeing. Exposure to green landscapes can offer hospitalized patients various benefits like improved sleep, better pain management and enhanced psychological wellbeing. Our grounds serve as an extension of the important and life-saving work happening within the walls of the hospitals.

For staff, our green spaces can act as a conduit to address compassion fatigue. Without proper coping skills or regular self-care opportunities, extended exposure to difficult situations and trauma in a caregiving environment can cause chronic physical and emotional exhaustion. Our landscapes are prime locations to employ wellness initiatives to bring about restorative and preventative healing.

A monarch butterfly visits the flowers near Sunnybrook

Our hospital connects the community to nature in many other ways.

Horticultural therapy is used by our Veterans Centre and Geriatric Day Hospital to enhance the treatment and care of patients. A trained horticultural therapist uses plants, nature and gardening as a vehicle to developing a therapeutic relationship with residents. This nourishes and enhances people’s cognitive, spiritual, social, emotional and physical life. Gardening also battles patients’ feelings of isolation, while reducing stress and aggression.

The Frederick W. Thompson Anxiety Disorders Centre at Sunnybrook Health Sciences also incorporates the outdoors into the clinic’s treatment regimes. Clinicians regularly take their intensive treatment patients on long walks through the ravines, and outpatients often take walks through the grounds to work on their anxiety issues.

In 2019 I installed a Labyrinth at Sunnybrook for personal, psychological and spiritual transformation. Labyrinth walking benefits participants by temporarily suspending so-called left-brain activity—logical thought, analysis, and fact-based planning—to encourage the emergence of the intuition and imaginative creativity associated with the right brain.

Senior leadership and staff enjoying the Labyrinth

Our outdoor seating and spaces use natural elements like fallen trees to make seats and tables. Not only do well-designed gardens provide restorative nature views, but they also reduce stress by their sensory interest and functionality. They are also designed and maintained to reduce plant allergens, encourage pollinators and birds, and clean the air.

Natural outdoor seating at Sunnybrook

We also bring nature indoors with many indoor gardens, water features and plant material within the walls of the hospital to combat Sick Building Syndrome. Though modern buildings are tightly sealed to be more energy efficient, this also traps up to ten times more harmful pollutants than the air outside. Occupants can experience symptoms such as sore throat, burning eyes, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and headaches. A Norwegian study found that live plants reduced these symptoms by 30 to 40 per cent, possibly by removing volatile organic compounds like benzene and particulate matter such as dust, ash, pollen and smoke to improve indoor air quality.

Over 7.5 km of nature walking paths wind through the conservation areas on our campus. People from the surrounding communities, staff, patients and visitors can be seen daily (even during the winter months) walking or riding the paths.

Some of the 7.5 km of nature walking paths around Sunnybrook

In honour of our veterans, and with the support of GrandTrees Climate Solutions and the Highway of Heroes Tree Campaign, we designed and planted Sunnybrook’s Memorial Arboretum for our community to explore nature and the healing benefits of trees.

Our green grounds and practices support multiple components of self-care. Sunnybrook’s green spaces bring a greater quality of life—physically, mentally, and spiritually—to all who visit, work and heal in our facilities.  

Rohan Harrison is the Team Leader of the Grounds Department at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto and an Accredited Organic Land Care Practitioner.

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