How to work successfully with a garden designer and other outside specialists by Step Change Design

27th March 2017

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In this article, Debbie and Mark at Step Change Design Ltd. explain how their research findings can help the care setting to work successfully with a designer, and other outside specialists, and the key messages they are delivering to their peers in the design sector about how to work with care settings more effectively.

We developed our Care Culture Map tool to help the care setting to work out where its current care culture is and then to plan its route towards increasingly advanced care culture practices. We have arranged more than 200 boxes with statements across seven columns on this Map; each one capturing something that we observed in our research and then carefully arranged along the spectrum between task-oriented care practices at the lower end and relationship-centred care practices at the higher end. They can be used as ‘steps’ to help the care setting move forward on their own unique culture change journey.

The Map also helps designers (and outside specialist) working with care settings to match their services more appropriately and cost effectively to the current care culture by identifying the types of interventions that are most relevant for the care setting according to their current location along the care culture spectrum.

It was only at the final stage of developing the Map that we were clearly able to see how and when outside specialists, such as garden designers, gardeners, horticultural therapists and architects, might fit in to support the residents to engage more actively and meaningfully with their outside space.

For nearly three-quarters of our entire research project, we had resigned ourselves to an uncomfortable conclusion that a designer may not be necessary to create an actively used garden. The evidence showed us that activating the outside space for residents lay in the hands of the care staff rather than in those of the designer. When we described this situation to an activity coordinator in our study group, she helpfully stated, ‘So I am looking at a pair of redundant garden designers then, am I?’  

It was during the data analysis phase that we understood how care culture presented itself in the practices, processes and policies of the care settings we visited before we were then able to finally identify the way that we outside specialists could best support them. We recognised that there would be times when the expertise of an outside specialist would be needed to develop the changes that the care setting wished to make to their outside space but could not do for themselves.

We could now see that our role (as designers or outside specialists) needs to be a supportive one and needs to match the care setting’s current cultural position. This finding also explained one of the reasons why newly designed care setting gardens can quickly fall into disuse once the novelty has worn off. This is because the designer has ‘overdesigned’ the space creating a new garden that is beyond the current capabilities of the setting to use the new garden actively and sustainably.

In other words, if the use of the garden isn’t embedded in the cultural practices of the home before the designer arrives, then simply by making it prettier and introducing new materials, features and planting is not going to make it any more integrated into the overall care culture in the longer term. In fact, the new garden risks the considerable investment that was made being considered a waste of money as the setting is likely to return to its original cultural practices once the novelty has worn off.

We added the final column to the Map for garden designers and other specialists to show what kind of outside interventions would be appropriate and cost-effectively matched to where the care setting is located culturally. This column is the ‘safety catch’ in the Map – it shows a wide range of ways to engage a garden designer but it requires the care setting to know where it is on the journey towards greater relationship-centred care to know how to use them appropriately and cost-effectively.

What we are promoting now is a new approach in the way care settings and outside specialists work together. We call it, ‘Relationship-Centred Design’. It aims to ensure that outside support matches the current culture position of the care setting so reducing the risk of overdesigning the space. This approach requires care staff to remain in control of the design intervention. This is because it is the care staff who know their residents best. It is also the care staff who can articulate their own current practices, attitudes and procedures (their ‘care culture’) relating to the outside space.

For designers, this approach may involve a shift in their traditional garden design practice: from a one-off, whole-garden approach, to one possibly entailing smaller and more modest commissions over a longer term basis, facilitating the culture change journey of the care setting.

The emphasis in the approach we now advocate is not on making the garden neat or perfect or having to redesign the whole space in one go or filling it with irrelevant or generic gimmicks, but focusing on a domestic and familiar space. This must reflect the needs of the residents and work closely with the current care culture and capabilities of the setting to ensure that their involvement represents a good investment of their resources and leads to meaningful involvement with the outside space for the residents, families and staff in the care setting, as and when they wish to.

For more information please visit their website

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