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What makes a landscape contemplative?

It’s a bit strange to label a landscape as contemplative. We don’t tend to design for the garden itself to contemplate its place in the universe. (Don’t get me wrong. Plants may well spend their time contemplating profound issues. But people don’t usually consider that in their design plans.) It’s the people who inhabit the landscape who are doing the contemplating.

So what’s a contemplative landscape?

In short, it’s a landscape that facilitates contemplation. At least, that’s my pragmatic definition.

What characteristics define a contemplative landscape?

Sense of safety

This is a basic requirement and relates to the other characteristics. Essentially, the mind won’t feel free to contemplate if it’s tied up in fearfully scanning the environment. They may even choose not to stay in the space at all. That doesn’t mean they fear imminent attack, but they aren’t adequately comfortable to want to spend time in the space.

Part of the design process must be to make the landscape feel safe. Historically, a sense of enclosure has contributed to a feeling of safety, leading to a common use of a walled garden to create a contemplative space. Human beings don’t want to feel overly exposed. This can mean exposure to danger, but it also refers to being watched by strangers.

On the flip side, in today’s society, there may be fear associated with being too enclosed. This generally refers to public spaces where there may be perceived danger that criminals could hide behind large items or corner people in enclosed areas. Those dangers may well be real, but even if they are only perceived, they can hamper the effectiveness of a contemplative garden.

Another part must be to incorporate elements that help calm the sympathetic nervous system. Daily life for many people is so full of stressors that they walk through their day with a load of low level fight-or-flight responses in their system. Landscape elements like trees and adequate amounts of planting have been found to lower blood pressure, cortisol levels, etc.

Ability to focus within one’s mind

This could also be stated as the ability to think without interruption or to follow thoughts where they want to go without having our attention called to something else. There are multiple approaches to making this easier for the people using the space.

  • Visual focus: This could be as simple as providing a nice view or a focal point, or it may include using design elements to draw the eye in the desired direction. This is more important for passive contemplative landscapes where the act of looking at the view helps to focus the experience. Keep in mind, the view may be a far off expanse, or it may be very near the viewer, enclosed by surrounding walls or some other element.
  • Silence: A contemplative garden may offer a quiet environment to allow users to hear their own thoughts, so to speak. This can be relatively easy to achieve out in the country, far from neighbors or towns, but the closer you get to other inhabitants, the more ambient noise there will be beyond your control.
  • White noise: By white noise, I mean a sound element that helps mask other noises so that they blend into the background experience of the site. Landscape elements like a water feature or wind can help with this effect.
  • Harmonious sound: A sound that is flowing or rhythmic can actually help people relax into a contemplative frame of mind. This could be music, like flute or drums, or it could be wind chimes or some other environmental sound instrument.

Ability to be alone

Being alone is a relative sensation. In general, people will be able to enter a contemplative frame of mind more easily if their personal space is free of other individuals. In this case, physical space may not be enough. If they feel watched, they may still not feel comfortable in the space, so some sense of privacy is important.

How does this translate into design? The entire garden could be surrounded by walls or hedges, or a larger space like a park could have alcoves or small areas secluded from the main walkways. As we said in the safety discussion, it may not be wise to build 8’ walls around the whole space in a public environment. Strategic use of planting can provide a sense of semi-enclosure or semi-privacy while still giving people the ability to feel free of lurking dangers.

Connection to nature

Ideally this connection comes through planting, but use of natural materials can strengthen the contemplative character of a landscape, as well.

This doesn’t mean that only natural materials can be used. Clean lines can also contribute to contemplation by helping focus thought. Zen gardens do this well, though traditionally they also use natural materials.

Does any of this prescribe a specific design? Not at all. Some contemplative landscapes are extremely passive. The visitor is meant to be still and look at the landscape. Others invite active participation, like in the use of a labyrinth.

The key is to make sure the design creates a space where the user can more easily enter a contemplative frame of mind. The very first contemplative landscape I ever created was nothing more than a walking circuit through a group of trees. I was a kid – maybe eight years old at first – and I had no idea what a contemplative garden was. To me, this was my “thinking spot”. Contemplative gardens don’t have to be fancy or complex to create.

There are a few things that can be helpful, but they aren’t necessarily required.

  • Repetition: Repeating elements can help the brain find a calm, contemplative frame of mind. This could be a repetition of shapes, particular plants, lights, or artistic pieces. Whatever elements you are using can be candidates for repetition.
  • Restricted palette: By paring down the design palette, it can contribute to focusing the mind. Some people may find it easier to achieve a contemplative state with a visually clean (less busy) landscape.