Designing for the Socially Not-So-Distant Future of Outdoor Spaces


Designing spaces able to remain in use during isolation orders

Designing for the Socially Not-So-Distant Future of Outdoor Spaces

April 15, 2020
9:00am PST
Blair Evans, Landscape Architect

Much has been written recently on how to approach health and the pandemic from the design professional services. Focusing on outdoor spaces, I use landscape architecture as a way to enhance the lives of those who are guests of spaces I’ve designed. Whether it is a resort-style pool or a rooftop garden or even just a walkway connecting two buildings, these outdoor spaces are important factors in creating a memorable environment. However, with the current COVID-19 crisis and the requirement to shelter in place, I appreciate the high value a safe outdoor environment brings to a development far more. 

Experts agree being outdoors reduces the risk of infection since you are less likely to come in contact with contaminated surfaces and particles quickly dissipate in the open air. Additionally, UV light kills germs when exposed, meaning fresh air and sunlight are natural disinfectants. This healthy environment coupled with exercise and recreation are key components to bringing quarantined populations back to health much quicker.

As people are required to stay home, mental health becomes a significant concern as people are sequestered indoors and in isolation, away from in-person connection and the mood enhancement sunshine provides. Being outdoors and in sunlight has been proven to reduce stress, anxiety and feelings of depression. As we approach the moment that ending sheltering in place is appropriate, how do we implement the lessons learned from this pandemic in the social spaces we will design moving forward?

Landscape Architects have naturally implemented many design principles that provide safe and enjoyable access to the outdoors. Furthermore, we will need to continue to review and adapt on future projects and strategize how to transform outdoor spaces. Nowhere is this more true than in urban areas, designing recreation areas able to continue to be used while respecting potential future social distancing measures should another pandemic appear: 

  1. Recreation opportunities are more important than ever, especially trails for walking, running or hiking. Landscape Architects have traditionally thought of parks and trails as two separate entities, but we need to consider trail loops and paths as integral parts of our park designs. Also, trails that branch off and then come back together should be considered to help maintain social distance. Even before COVID-19, trails were an important design element, but are even more important when other recreation opportunities are not available.

  2. We have already seen a trend in many of our multi-family and student housing projects to have smaller spaces within larger spaces. People like being outdoors but do not necessarily want to be in a space meant for a large group. A simple chair tucked into a corner can be much more inviting than sitting in the middle of a huge courtyard by yourself. We should continue to look for ways to provide outdoor spaces where people can be separated but still feel like they are part of a larger community.

  3. Landscape architects push for the highest and best uses on the neglected areas of a site. Are there ways to amenitize fire lanes or alleys to allow for flexible outdoor uses, while maintaining the access corridor? How can we maximize the potential area for rooftop gardens? While we would need to work with jurisdictions on fulfilling their requirements, allowing for a passive use can create many opportunities for individuals to be outdoors.

  4. Many offices have already created outdoor collaboration and work spaces, but this has not transitioned as much to other project types. After this pandemic passes, we can assume we’ll see more people working from home than ever before, and we need to explore more and creative ways for these workers to be able to be outdoors. Wifi connections, power outlets, shade to reduce glare, and ergonomic seating will allow people to be able to be productive while working outside. What uses and technologies can be developed to create more flexibility in the outdoor space for working?

Landscape Architects design for a dynamic and changing environment on every project. Whether it is climate, location, demographics, desired uses, or any of a myriad of other factors, we carefully identify and consider each one on a project-by-project basis. Adding social distancing and safe outdoor spaces to the list is a challenge Landscape Architects are uniquely suited to tackle and successfully integrate into our designs. Together with developers and other design professionals and consultants, we can grow our collective knowledge from this experience for creating future developments that are of high economic value, attractive, and provide for the collective health of our society.