Topher Delaney

By Kathy Bond Borie

When San Francisco artist Topher Delaney begins work on a design for a sanctuary or healing garden, she doesn't talk plants. She wants to know all about her client's early childhood, specifically the first six years. With a background as a cultural anthropologist, Delaney believes her work is to tag into what people's experiences were at that young age because those years determine where people will proceed in life - and what will provide comfort.

"My work is to make people stronger and to bring in their lifeline in order to connect them with the land. I'm very interested in how things look but I'm most interested in what that umbilical cord is," she explains.

garden room

Designs for Public Spaces

In designing public spaces, Delaney explores the cultural demographics of the people who will visit or reside there, their relationship to the site, and how they will use it. She loves her current project for a public housing development in Sacramento because the Cambodian and Laotian residents have a rich cultural history for her to draw upon in creating a space that brings them comfort.

To remind them of the tropical riches of their home countries, she's planting exotic fruits -- Kieffer lime trees, an allee of persimmons, pawpaw fruit, kiwi. Asparagus ferns provide the groundcover for the median strips. She wants to give the people something unique.

Delaney is personally drawn to places on the edge -- the ocean where she now lives, and the wide open spaces at the edge of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming where she lived as a child. She also likes to help people whose lives are on the edge, who are in the midst of change. Her personal experience with breast cancer inspired her focus on healing gardens as a way to reach out to these people. "It was a turning point," she says. "I thought, 'Here I am, how do I make a difference?' I didn't set out to make healing gardens. I didn't even know what they were. I just decided it was important to me to create places for people to decompress."

Delaney has created healing gardens for five hospitals around the country. In planning the Leichtag Family Healing Garden at the Children's Hospital and Health Center in San Francisco, she wanted children to have a sense of being able to move their bodies through the space and find playful things to do and see. Visitors enter through the legs of a 20-foot-tall dinosaur that's guardian of the garden, while a 7-foot-tall blue-tiled seahorse fountain beckons kids to take a drink. Delaney says the garden is as much for the siblings of the patients because they often are acting out and need a place to express that energy.

moveable benches

A Place for People and Plants

With her belief in the power of a place and its people, it's not surprising that Delaney has strong feelings about the former World Trade Center site. She wishes it could become a huge memorial sanctuary. Instead, she's finding another way to help people remember those who lost their lives. She's started a nonprofit organization and is working in conjunction with the New York City Parks Department to plant a tree for every individual who was lost. Five hundred trees will be planted in the Bronx, then more in the other four Boroughs of New York. Anyone interested in donating to this effort can contact Jamie Hand at

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