A Healing Respite: The Gardens of UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay

By Kate Vidinsky

When it opens in 2015, UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay will offer 10 ground level and rooftop gardens, totaling more than four acres of green space.

When it opens in 2015, UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay will feature expansive gardens and green space — among the most of any urban hospital in the U.S. — providing patients and their families with a powerful respite that promotes healing in conjunction with UCSF’s world-class medical care.

Elena Gates, MD

Elena Gates, MD

The outdoor spaces will be integral to the facility’s sustainability strategies, promoting health beyond the patient to the surrounding community.

The new medical center will offer 10 ground level and rooftop gardens, totaling more than four acres of green space. Designed as integrated extensions of the hospitals serving women, children and cancer patients, the healing gardens will respond to the unique needs of each group, according to Elena Gates, MD, chief of the UCSF Division of General Gynecology, who has been involved in the hospital planning process since the beginning.

“We envision a healing environment that provides connections to nature for all our patients, their families and hospital staff,” Gates said. “The hospital buildings are designed to flow seamlessly from patient units to the outdoors, offering positive diversions from the stress of illness and hospitalization.”

That seamless flow has been a major focus of the hospital’s design since day one. The project team anticipates that when UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay opens in early 2015, patients and their families will make the gardens their own and use them to find a quiet place to sit, feel a sense of privacy, and connect to nature, even if the garden is gazed upon from a hospital bed.

“The overall experience at the hospital goes well beyond the rooms inside,” said Lynn Befu, who leads interiors at Stantec, the architecture firm working on the hospital project. “We want patients and their families to have the best possible impression of the hospital and leave with good memories of their experience even under trying circumstances.”

Designed to Heal

Across cultures and history, nature has been regarded as a compelling healing force, connecting individuals to the cycles of life and inspiring renewal and hope. More recently, research into the restorative power of gardens has demonstrated that access to healing gardens during an illness can lead to a reduced need for pain medication and shorter hospital stays.

“When designing a healing garden, we must consider a multitude of factors,” said Jacinta McCann, the hospital’s lead landscape architect and executive vice president of AECOM, the landscape architecture firm collaborating with UCSF. “We aim to create a space that provides a sense of comfort and familiarity to visitors, one that might remind people of a comfortable setting at home. Senses of brightness, harmony, simplicity, spirit, choice, and discovery — these are all key elements. You should walk into the space and not feel like it is a somber place.”

Throughout the gardens, opportunities for choice — a seat in the sun, or one in the shade — will offer a sense of control. Opportunities for movement — an open play terrace or a quietly meandering path — will offer a sense of discovery.

Different Gardens, Different Purposes

Just as UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay will treat a wide variety of individuals and conditions, including children, women and cancer patients, the gardens will appeal to a wide variety of visitors. Each exterior space will respond to the particular needs of the patient population and the activities visitors are most likely to engage in.

For example, the garden just outside the intensive care unit has been designed for people who may be looking for somewhere to pace and find some privacy, with circular paths and tucked-away seating areas. View gardens outside the labor and delivery unit of the women’s hospital and the cancer hospital that are not accessible by foot will be filled with movement and life and offer a protected habitat for native birds and butterflies. A fifth floor roof garden outside the children’s rehabilitation unit will offer larger open spaces for physical therapy and fun group activities.

“These spaces have all been designed to break down scale into areas where someone can sit and feel like they have some privacy among the hospital hustle and bustle, but also have great functional characteristics,” Befu said. “The range of diversity that we have been able to achieve here is unique and something I have not experienced before.”

Sustainability in Action

UCSF is committed to incorporating green practices into the medical center at Mission Bay, which targets LEED Gold certification, and the gardens are no exception. The outdoor spaces have been designed to help improve the surrounding air quality, maintain a native habitat and recycle millions of gallons of water each year.

A view of a rooftop garden under construction.

A view of a rooftop garden under construction.

More than half of the hospital complex’s roof space, or 1.2 acres, will be covered in gardens and greenery, which help insulate the building and replace some man-made materials. The rooftop plantings will act as a natural filter and clean the air of pollutants before it is directed into the building through roof-mounted intakes.

“Hospitals use a significant amount of energy and produce a tremendous amount of waste,” Gates said. “Adding green space to as many of our roof areas as possible enables us to contribute to the health of our local environment in a positive way.”

The project team also has carefully considered the hospital site as it was in its original form — a saltwater marsh with native plants, animals and vegetation patterns. By infusing this idea into the garden plans, native plants will be reintroduced to help attract native creatures, all while keeping the best interest of the patient and hospital in mind.

Another major feat in sustainability will be efforts to minimize the amount of water used to maintain the gardens. Most of the water needed for irrigation purposes will be recycled from the building’s cooling system. This will save about four million gallons of water each year, the equivalent of 95,000 bathtubs. 

“The sheer volume of these gardens in such a dense urban environment is amazing,” said Tyler Krehlik, a senior architect and sustainability expert at Stantec. “Our vision with UCSF for this project is to create as lush an environment as possible, which is really something given what this site used to be.”