July 09, 2020

How landscape architects can bridge the gap between in and outdoor spaces

Public Space and Land Art

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"People don't typically think of architects as first responders," Amal Mahrouki, director of legislative affairs with AIA Pennsylvania, told WHYY. "But they can be, if they've gone through the right training."

While our idea of first responders is primarily EMTs, doctors or firefighters, amid COVID-19, we have started to expand our understanding of what essential services can look like in a post-pandemic world.

Urban designers and landscape architects have become critical agents in the effort to slow the spread of the virus too. How? By transforming how we use and inhabit buildings, public and open space, including regulations and guidelines to make room for social distancing without compromising the quality of the built and natural environment.

Before the pandemic, cities and municipalities attempted to revitalize urban centres to stop urban sprawl and its impacts on the environment. They promoted collective and community living through innovative co-housing projects and active mass transportation systems. We lived within the "share everything" era, such as car-sharing, public bikes, scooters, and other urban systems to serve re-densified core areas.

Now, these lifestyles have turned upside down. According to Michael Kimmelman for the New York Times, pandemics can be seen as anti-urban, because they exploit our impulse to congregate. With the advent of city lockdowns, mandatory quarantining and social distancing, we have indeed seen some dramatic changes in how we use urban spaces.

While a lot of these changes can be interpreted as positive (we love to see parks occupied with social distancing fun), our rapidly changing world has highlighted issues of safety inequality related to our public spaces. To reach a higher standard, and guarantee the safety of residents, the following elements must be considered to create equally excellent open spaces for all:

Maintenance

Research has shown that parks and playgrounds in working-class communities are less likely to receive proper conservation or renovations. If we re-consider the maintenance and restoration of obsolete infrastructure, it will allow neighbours to collectively participate in protecting themselves and the community through ensuring their sound mental and physical wellbeing. From providing community gardens that members can maintain to updating park infrastructure to repurposing old structure--transforming neighbourhood parks into significant spaces will achieve a healthier community.

Design

Landscape architects are constantly integrating design ideas to generate resilient spaces that accommodate the needs of different population groups. Assets in future park design can include the use of new (and old!) technologies to control the capacity of outdoor spaces. A few examples include:

  • redesigning pathway widths to allow for safe social passing/interacting, eliminating sunny spots
  • encouraging distancing through tree planting, and
  • introducing new technologies for playgrounds that enable children to play with one another safely.

Selecting plant species that reduce stress and promote mindfulness can also play an essential role in the design of new public spaces. The softness of particular plant material can contrast beautifully with rigid and seamless building materials (i.e., glass, steel, concrete).

Understanding the deep complexities of planting species is difficult. However, we still should prioritize a plant species historic role, their aesthetic relation to their planting neighbours, blooming time, scent, variation, texture, (the list goes on!) to truly maximize their aesthetic and healing potentials.

Landscape architects can also help bridge the gap between interior and exterior environments. As anxiety behind indoor public spaces continues to rise, extreme value is being put on exterior areas that serve as extensions of a building's interior. Blurring the boundaries between inside and out not only creates more successful exterior spaces but lowers interior-claustrophobic related anxieties, creating an altogether more attractive building.

Other more direct infrastructure such as drawing circles and proper signage for users to understand the 'space bubble' of safety around two metres or six feet must not only be considered but has the potential to be more creatively considered.

Networks

Thinking on a bigger scale is also necessary for the successful response of towns and cities during a pandemic. The creation of master plans that guide the development of active transportation systems connecting neighbourhood parks, bicycle and pedestrian pathways will accelerate the processes towards achieving a sustainable city.

The creation of open space networks also supports citizens wellbeing. Walking, cycling, scooting, or however, an active transportation network suits you, saves money and protects your mental and physical health. Creating successful, well-connected networks is the perfect task for landscape architects as we fully understand the human and economic value highly designed networks can enable.

Furthermore, accessibility to these networks, parks and other natural areas can also be encouraged through infrastructure or building alterations. Including:


These are just a few easy ways to realize our best, most safe, active transportation network dream.

Although we still have yet to understand the long term the impacts of COVID, we can confirm this daunting virus came to our lives to remind us of the importance to ask for more from our public spaces and the protection and preservation of our natural environments. Moreover, it has highlighted the necessity in designing the future built environment sustainably and responsibly.

With the confinement inside our homes and the limitations in the capacity of indoor gathering spaces, like concert halls, restaurants, shopping malls, museums, etc.; we realize how much we took public spaces, parks and natural areas for granted.

Our physical and mental health matter now more than ever, which is why we should be calling upon the expertise of landscape architect professionals. The immeasurable benefits that open spaces provide us are crucial in helping increase our quality of life for the duration of the pandemic and beyond.

For this reason, many cities throughout all continents are already implementing new policies and designs for more effective community living and transportation. As landscape architects, we respond to the needs and concerns regarding public space. Through innovative design and implementation of safety regulations, we will continue providing support to architects and developers in the design and management of public spaces, as well as reinforce our commitment to bringing sustainable solutions that accommodate the global new realities into our projects.

Big problems don't always need big solutions. Still, if we consider the three initiatives described above, comprehensive solutions can be made through a sequence of small steps that help with staying safe and healthy.

Do you have other initiatives to promote better public spaces after the pandemic? Please share with us your thoughts.