RNIB Redhill

This landscape uses colour, texture and form to gently guide both bodies and minds, Josephine Smit explains.

RNIB Redhill - image: Gardner Stewart Architects
RNIB Redhill - image: Gardner Stewart Architects

The landscape at a new housing development under construction on the outskirts of Redhill, Surrey, comes with a fine pedigree. It draws on a garden design that won gold at the 2014 RHS Chelsea Flower Show along with the prize for best fresh garden and a BBC/RHS People’s Choice award.

The Mind’s Eye Garden was inspired by the larger development’s initiator, the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), and by some of its future residents. Created by landscape architects Alex Frazier and Thomas Prince, it pushed the boundaries of sensory design, creating an environment that played with the senses and perceptions of the visually impaired and those with 20:20 vision.

The landscape for the 102-home site in Redhill also has to prioritise the needs of diverse residents because the development provides accommodation for the blind and partially sighted alongside homes
for market sale. This integrated development poses challenges, calling for a landscape design that is safe, accessible and appealing to the RNIB’s residents, attracts homebuyers and creates a place with enduring quality and functionality.

Image: Alex Frazier/LDC

Partnership project

The RNIB’s site was home to its community living service, offering residential care and assisted living accommodation for blind or partially sighted residents, some of whom also have learning, physical and mental health needs. The facilities and services were in need of modernisation, so the RNIB entered a joint-venture partnership with housebuilder Countryside Properties to redevelop the site with a mix of private housing and homes for the residents, with the former funding the latter. Alongside the homes, the scheme design by Gardner Stewart Architects includes conversion of an existing listed building on the site to a hub containing café, hall, offices and meeting spaces for the RNIB.

The green belt site provided an attractive location, with existing trees and long views. But its undulating topography included a drop in level, running from north to south, of around 21m. "It is a very long site with dramatic changes in levels, so for the design we worked with ideas around the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’, with planting spilling down the site," explains LDC landscape architect Alex Frazier.

At the same time, routes through the site had to be accessible to all, avoiding obvious and unsightly aids such as handrails, says Frazier. "A lot of what we have done here has built on our approach for the Chelsea garden. We worked closely with people with sight loss who explained that they wanted to feel inclusive but pointed out that a challenging environment was not a problem. As a result we have used colour, texture and form to guide people."

The development’s design respects the site’s woodland setting and its views, having a series of distinctive housing areas linked by a 2.4m-wide pedestrian route, described by Frazier as: "The green glue that sticks the whole development together."

The route provides safe access, prioritising pedestrian movement and limiting the need for road crossing. Along the trail, sensory nodes stimulate the senses with aromatic plants such as lavender and rosemary and bursts of colour — particularly yellow-flowering plants because this is the most easily visible colour. The sensory trail is based not only around the five senses but also the two additional senses of movement awareness and balance, which are so critical for those with impaired vision.

Frazier says much design consideration has gone into creating the hierarchy of shared surfaces. "We wanted to move away from Tarmac so we used both planting and hard landscaping." For example, junctions or borders along the trail, which has to cross some vehicle access ways, are indicated by changes to rumbled textured paving setts or taller box hedging. Lighting is provided in low-level bollards, which aid biodiversity.

The housing areas have a formal aesthetic in the west, taking their lead from the existing listed building, and adopt a more rural and informal design to the east. At the western end of the site is Tudor Square, which has an orthogonal layout focused around a hard landscaped square, with views towards a 200-year-old cedar of Lebanon and beyond.

"We have silver birch trees with planting beneath and seating, which is positioned face-to-face to encourage interaction," says Frazier. The RNIB’s hub and its nearby apartments are accompanied by a lavender and rose garden, edged by cherry trees with London planes beyond. Raised beds will provide an opportunity for resident engagement.

Park Vista is located on a view corridor and has homes in a parkland setting. The Oaks, which links Park Vista to existing woodland, has detached homes in a sensory garden, which forms the culmination of the sensory trail. To the north east, Hawthorn Hill has family homes around a wild flower meadow. "It is an amphitheatre and a hotspot for the sun, so people will be able to rest and face the sun," Frazier explains.

The landscape team worked with the RNIB early to understand the needs of blind and partially sighted residents. "We had a workshop with residents when designing the Chelsea garden," says Frazier. "We took along plants and samples and put ideas to them. We had a direct response with the end user."

That has led to the incorporation of some plants not commonly found in new housing estates, he adds, including roses such as Gertrude Jekyll and the climbing Kiftsgate. "We used species that are associated with the past and that might hold memories for people," says Frazier. He describes the resulting design as "a kind of take on a romantic English garden — a watercolour painting that breaks into a series of spaces".

Sensory Walk - image: Alex Frazier/LDC

Early learning

The scheme is still under construction but is already yielding lessons. On this project, as on many of its schemes, the housebuilder is putting in whips and smaller stock for native planting around the perimeter of the site before the homes are built. "It means the site will look established by the time the homes are completed and it is a good way of planting cost-effectively," Frazier points out.

The landscape architect also had beneficial early dialogues with nurseries. "It meant everyone could prepare and that we would get what we wanted."

Drought-tolerant species have been specified for the planting as far as possible because the development does not have the luxury of an irrigation system. Frazier says designing for drought represents "one of the biggest challenges we face for the future".

This project also demonstrates how the design of the show garden and the real life development landscape can go hand-in-hand, here developing learning about the landscape’s role in gently guiding both bodies and minds. Such features as clear layouts, subtle and natural forms of wayfinding and evocative planting clearly have broader applications in place-making developments, towns and cities to address the needs of our ageing population.

Image: Alex Frazier/LDC

The Mind’s Eye Garden

The Mind’s Eye Garden was a multi-sensory RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden that not only stimulated and delighted the blind, visually impaired and fully sighted, but also played with the latter’s perceptions. While planting and features included a wealth of attractions that everyone could touch, smell, hear or even taste, it also featured distorted visions such as a seemingly never-ending pit that gave the fully sighted a sense of how the blind or visually impaired see the world. "We turned conventional perception on its head," says Frazier. The walled garden used water for wayfinding, with a glass cube water feature at its centre surrounded by four distinct planting zones. Naturalistic planting in horizontal and vertical beds featured in the four zones — open woodland, damp/wet shady woodland, temperate prairie border and Mediterranean/arid.

Project team

Client RNIB and Countryside Properties
Landscape design LDC
Architect Gardner Stewart Architects

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