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Exploring accessible garden design in Japan and Singapore

Debbie Austin, a gardening enthusiast from Cornwall, has recently returned from a research trip to Japan and Singapore to investigate best practice in garden design aimed at promoting wellbeing.

As Debbie has Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and has been a wheelchair user for the last thirteen years, this project also had a focus on accessibility. Debbie’s travels were enabled by a Winston Churchill Trust Travelling Fellowship Award, in partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society, who jointly fund three Fellowships per year for horticulturists and garden designers.

When Debbie moved from the countryside into the city of Truro, she was keen to access a local community-based gardening project, having previously enjoyed the positive benefits of gardening.

However, she was disappointed to find a lack of accessible options. She wantA to use her Fellowship to find out what happens in other countries, and hoped on her return to use her findings to establish a local accessible gardening facility incorporating the best practice from Japan and Singapore.

On her Fellowship, Debbie visited a wide range of gardens and parks in Japan and Singapore over the course of seven weeks, including community gardens, therapeutic gardens and a hospital garden. She was fascinated to observe the innovative gardening programmes for elderly people run by Singapore National Parks, which are a response to concerns about Singapore’s ageing and increasingly isolated population. Individuals are transported to the garden from their day care centres and engage in activities specifically aimed at improving their memory.

Whilst in Japan, Debbie participated in Shinrin Yoku, a forest therapy programme. She was honoured to meet with Dr Qing Li at Nippon Medical School to discuss his findings on Forest Medicine.

Dr Li’s research shows how spending time in a forest setting can lower blood pressure and heart rate, reduce stress levels and increase cancer fighting cells. He has been at the forefront of developments on Cyprus tree oil, which enables some of these benefits to be accessed away from the forest.

Debbie also met up with members of Japan’s MS Society, including Secretary General George Nakajima, and Chairman Hiroyuki Mizutani, and wrote a blog post about the day she spent with them.

Debbie was interested to learn about the experiences of MS sufferers in Japan and gave a talk about her personal experiences of the benefits of visiting gardens.

“One of the most inspiring things I saw was a community garden on the roof of a multi-story carpark where a ninety-seven-year-old lady was able to continue gardening in her wheelchair.

“Opportunities such as this go a long way to increasing community integration, reducing loneliness and therefore maintaining physical and emotional health. All participants were entitled to a share of the fruit and vegetables, ensuring fresh produce within their diet” said Debbie Austin.

Now back in the UK, Debbie plans to use the experience of her Fellowship to establish a local accessible community based garden. Debbie has already begun to make links with existing projects and hopes to use the knowledge she gained on her travels to influence future developments. She would also like to establish a twinning project with a community garden in Singapore.

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