Update on Plans for a New Farm at St. Joseph Mercy


by Kat Shiffler, graduate student in landscape architecture at the University of Michigan.

The word is out. The Farm at St. Joseph Mercy is a national model of the “green care” movement, pioneering a new approach to health care by connecting the hospital system with fresh, local food(read this great article about “How the Farm at St Joe’s Transforms its Health System“. But did you know that The Farm at St. Joe’s is working on replicating the model at the nearby St. Joseph Mercy Oakland in Pontiac?

Amanda looking over a proposed site plan at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland in Pontiac, MI

In January, I began working with The Farm’s Amanda Sweetman to envision and design the 1.3 acre site at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland. When I jumped on board, she had completed soil tests, installed drainage, imported tons of topsoil and planted covercrops, bushes and flower bulbs.

To get into design mode, Amanda and I started with an analysis of the Pontiac location, looking into site conditions like sun and shade, topography, access and walking routes. We spoke with farm staff to compile the strengths and weaknesses of layout of the Ann Arbor site, compiling ideas for best practices for the new Pontiac farm design. And I looked into examples of outdoor healthcare environments and worked to summarize relevant research in environmental psychology and evidence-based design.

Process diagrams on top of early iteration of the Pontiac site plan

As a result, I created several proposals for the space that would combine a working farm, community gardens and specific areas for reflection and therapy. I did research on materials and starting getting into specifics regarding pathways, seating areas, accessible garden beds and gathering spaces. With an eye on ecological design, I began locating and defining appropriate varieties of trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and annuals. 

Image: Medical University of South Carolina; an existing example of hospital farm/garden

As we began to set in motion the construction we’d hoped would happen this Spring, COVID-19 changed the world. And we are now beginning to reassess the original plan in light of overall changes to healthcare environments.

Access to plants and nature seem to be a universal pressure release valve—important for the mental wellbeing of healthcare workers as well as the general public. In this new context, we are also certain that the demand for fresh, local vegetables will persist and even expand. But what will community gardening look like months from now? Will hospital seating areas be necessarily different? How will the public interact with healthcare settings in the future?

As we investigate these questions, we want to share our thoughts and our process; the process of designing a farm serving a post-COVID healthcare community—and what exactly that means.

For the next couple weeks, I will be sharing some of that research right here on the blog.

I hope you enjoy! Be Well.

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