The enjoyment of the outdoors should not be considered a luxury only available to a select group of people. With the onset of COVID-19 and the rising number of people working and studying from home, it's now more widely apparent that access to the outdoors is necessary to remain healthy mentally and physically.
By incorporating a simple notion: that access to the outdoors is a ‘need’ and not a ‘nice to have,’ future projects, in a range of scales and types, can reap the rewards of a currently under-utilized amenity.
So, what are the major points that require focus moving forward?
Historically, humans have been closely associated with the great outdoors, as evident in our ancestors who led traditional, hunter-gatherer lives.
As humans became more sedentary and set up more permanent homes, our connection with nature slowly began to fade. By the 21st century, humans had become a primarily urbanized species, with a significant population residing in cities. Within these contexts, interaction with nature is limited to parks, forests, and nature reserves.
Landscape architects have always emphasized the need for more public places. Still, the disconnect has been ever increasing.
With the onset of COVID-19 and resultant lock-downs and similar orders, the world has indeed been turned upside down. For most of 2020, we have lived almost entirely inside our homes, working and studying remotely. This isolation has had multiple negative impacts on our physical and mental health, ranging from increased obesity to rising divorce rates.
Landscape architects have long highlighted the impact of green space on mental health, and COVID-19 has proven that being outdoors is not a luxury that we should take for granted. However, the pandemic has also underlined that most urban settings do not provide adequate access to outdoor amenities. Moving forward, the allocation of access to outdoor spaces requires reimagining, and the areas provided will need to incorporate the points laid out later in this article.
So, why and how should landscape architecture be incorporated in projects to provide safe, inclusive outdoor spaces that are effectively beyond the timeframe of the current pandemic? To answer that, we’ve developed a list of five main focal points for consideration.
When reimagining landscape architecture in light of the coronavirus pandemic, one cannot stress enough the need to make private and semi-private outdoor spaces more accessible—and widely more available. Being outdoors is a necessary component in ensuring mental and physical health. Thus, it is also essential to ensure that everyone has access, not just those with private backyards or the few high-rise buildings with balconies.
Architects can contribute to this goal by proactively incorporating outdoor spaces with an aim to enhance the allure of the outdoors. Engaging a landscape architect can help ensure that these landscapes have all the required features to make these spaces both safe and desirable for use by a wide range of people.
One of the significant problems that have plagued public spaces historically has been inequitable access. Many neighbourhoods and communities have an inadequate allocation for parks and green spaces, but also, public spaces are often done so in a way that excludes a portion of those people. Lending to this issue is the notion that many outdoor public spaces are commercially focused and require the ability to make a purchase (such as an outdoor patio at a restaurant).
When integrating these spaces fairly throughout urban spaces, it is important to observe who has access and who is excluded. Public parks, gardens, and similar outdoor spaces need to be integrated intelligently to allow access to a range of users.
With any outdoor space, the possibility for flexible public programming should be considered. The organization of events that involve the community in outdoor participation can provide the opportunity for use beyond the intended purpose and encourages a sense of ownership with the users. It has been observed that public programming, both government and community-led, can encourage people to come out of their homes and participate in outdoor activities.
Confining the need for outdoor spaces only to the realm of personal health and welfare would be, in effect, unfair confinement of the concept. Outdoor participation is also essential to enhance and maintain social and community bonds. Spaces with the ability to provide gathering areas are as important as those meant for passing through (such as paths and trails).
Lastly, seasonality is a crucial factor in how widely used outdoor spaces can be. There is no question that parks and other outdoor areas are useful for gatherings, picnics, and games in the summer months, but winter also holds great promise for outdoor activities. Designers can utilize elements such as furniture, plant choices, and materials to better the experience of outdoor spaces in colder months and elongate the season for outdoor use. As we move into colder months, with many cities still struggling to control the coronavirus spread, there is a new demand for these types of spaces.
It cannot be denied that the coronavirus pandemic drastically changed the daily lives of many, and attention should be focused on maintaining the required distancing norms to prevent the spread of the virus. However, the need for mental and physical health cannot be overlooked, and the lessons we learn from these times can shape the future of public spaces in urban areas.
In this respect, landscape architects can work with other related professionals to provide spaces that encourage the use and provide valuable amenities to projects of varying scales and types.