The following piece was published as a perspective in the 2017 issue of con’text.  Willa
Caughey ’14 (left, at a rooftop garden in Copenhagen), finished an MLA at the University of Copenhagen in September 2016.  The image above is a section of a food forest from her thesis, The Phoenix Garden.

Walking out of the examination room after presenting my master’s thesis in September 2016, I was greeted by a warm cohort of friends popping champagne and placing plant trophies in my hands. That day was full of celebration, giving way to a period of reflection and gratitude—for my time at the University of Copenhagen, where I received a master of landscape architecture, and for the path that led me there.

I went to Conway to follow a passion, to pursue the education I wished I could find in a conventional landscape architecture program. I knew I would, in all likelihood, continue on to pursue an MLA, but I wanted the Conway experience to inform what followed. A confluence of factors led me to study in Copenhagen.

My first studio revealed an alarming clash between my professor’s abstract treatment of projects, and Conway’s commitment to analysis-based, real-world design solutions. I found myself struggling to communicate effectively and to figure out how the design identity I forged at Conway fit in here. Only when I had to explain to my confused classmates what a watershed was, did I begin to understand more tangibly the value of the Conway degree. I worked to integrate the best from each of my rich design educations, and this ultimately led me to evidence-based health design.

Evidence-based health design uses the best available research, along with institutional and user-based knowledge, to design for maximum health benefits and quality of life for users. In my thesis, I merge health design with ecological design. The Phoenix Garden presents a vision for an evidence-based therapeutic garden for incarcerated youth in San Mateo County, California. Designed for a largely Latino, socioeconomically disadvantaged population with a disproportionate share of psychiatric disorders, the garden uses naturalistic spaces to address psychiatric conditions and learning differences and works with the unique serpentine soil to restore valuable habitat.

From my thesis: an outdoor amphitheater, designed for youth in San Mateo, California, creates a flexible gathering, recreational, and contemplative space.

To a Conway graduate in relentless pursuit of the so what? an evidence-based approach may sound obvious. But in the field of landscape architecture, where poetic language and sun-drenched visualizations can be a substitute for substance, it has profound implications. Incorporating qualitative and quantitative evidence from a defined group of users—be they individuals with dementia or those in need of physical activity and stress reduction—increases the ability for landscapes to support and enhance the health and well-being of our population, and elevates the field of landscape design.