Performance Driven, Poetically Crafted Architecture

Exploring a Silver Lining: The Challenge to Design Next-Gen Outdoor Spaces

July 13, 2021
by Amy Schmieding

As we all look for silver linings in our shared experiences over the past year, one exciting opportunity is our rediscovery of outdoor space. At home, people have invested in outdoor seating, built patios and moved indoor living outside. At school, our kids are having classes, eating lunch and socializing outside. Within our communities, restaurants and businesses moved outdoors. We have all found that we are willing to put aside perceived inconveniences in order to maximize our time outside. The pandemic has led to an inherent shift in how we think about outdoor space. Outdoor spaces have become safe spaces; these spaces are no longer amenities, they are necessities.

The pandemic has highlighted for all of us the critical role that outdoor spaces can play in our communities. Unfortunately it has also shown us that the outdoors are not equally accessible to everyone. Many communities locally, nationally and globally do not have access to safe and engaging outdoor spaces.

Architects and designers have a unique opportunity to help shape this renewed focus on outdoor space. We can work with our clients and the public to have a tangible impact on the health and well-being of our communities. This is a chance to push the boundaries of what outdoor space is to all of us.

“We Need This”

As Magda Hebal, an architect at SNHA, put it: “Outdoor spaces and a general connection to the outdoors respond to a basic human need — our need to connect with nature. This connection fosters a more balanced lifestyle, less stress, higher concentration, less behavioral issues and a general sense of well-being. We need this in all aspects of our life.” Study after study has shown us the benefits of increasing our connection to nature and natural elements. These benefits include increased physical, mental and emotional health. Immersion in nature benefits healing and fitness, decreases aggression and promotes a sense of community.

The Trust for Public Lands has a 10 Minute Walk campaign, working with mayors to ensure equitable access to parks across the country. According to a recent survey conducted for 10 Minute Walk “two thirds of Americans agree that their quality of life would improve with better access to a park or green space within a 10-minute walk from their homes.” They also found that over 100 million people across the country, 28 million of which are children, do not have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home.

As more people move to cities, safe and easy access to green space has become more important — and paradoxically harder to find. A United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs report projects that two out of every three people are likely to live in cities or urban centers by 2050.

Architects have a role to play in including accessible green space in the projects we design, particularly in areas where access to nature is scarce, and in advocating for outdoor spaces as important for the health of individuals and the community. Accessible and equitable is about more than providing handrails and curb cuts, it is fundamentally about creating a better experience for everyone regardless of physical ability, age, gender identity or socioeconomic status.

Design that Gets Everyone Outdoors

As architects and designers, we also have the opportunity to seize this moment of increased interest to push the definition of outdoor space. Engaging outdoor space does not have to be a park or sports field. As Brianna Saviano, a designer at SNHA, notes, “The design of outdoor space needs to be a regular consideration in all projects.  Whether at ground level, rooftops, balconies, or flex spaces anywhere in between, there are so many opportunities to take advantage of in all project types.”

Oak Park Public Library's green roof.

The pandemic has highlighted a number of pre-existing inequities related to outdoor space in our communities. Spaces that promote more than one type of activity help to break down the barriers to equitable use and create opportunity for strong community connection. Some people are looking for physical activity, others are looking for quiet connections to nature. Outdoor spaces that provide for both of these interests are able to appeal to a broader group and bring these groups together in a shared space makes our communities stronger.

This doesn’t necessarily mean outdoor spaces should be technology-heavy — it’s important to note that as soon as spaces become difficult to use they start to lose their appeal. Instead, outdoor spaces should focus on being safe, inviting and accessible. Attention to lighting, flexible seating and material selections go a long way to ensuring that outdoor spaces are used to their fullest extent.

The more connected an outdoor space is to its community and the more inviting it is to all, the more value and longevity it has.

Bringing the Outdoors Inside

Beyond promoting the inclusion of outdoor space in our communities, architects and designers have the ability to extend our exposure to the natural world by pulling elements of nature into our built environments. Biophilic design is a concept that promotes the connection of people and nature within our built environments and communities either through direct or indirect experience of nature. The term biophilia was first defined as the “passionate love of life and of all that is alive”.

Direct experiences of nature are just what they sound like, exposure to plants, light and water. All of these natural elements have been shown to have direct benefits to physical and mental health when included in built environments. Exposure to increased natural light and views to the outside are elements that architects and designers should promote in our projects.

Indirect experiences of nature include the use of natural materials, including wood and bamboo, color palettes that are inspired by nature, abstract forms of natural elements and the use of materials with nature imagery.

Applying the concepts of biophilic design gives architects and designers another tool to promote and make accessible to all the benefits of exposure to nature.

St. Charles Public Library Youth Services with indoor greenery.

Taking a Cue from Civic Buildings

Public institutions and spaces are uniquely positioned to help address the outdoor space inequality by leveraging their existing position as community connectors; and their use of outdoor space offers thought-provoking inspiration for other segments of the built environment. Public libraries and schools have long utilized outdoor space, and there is increasing interest in the potential for outdoor space to expand useable area for programmed events in addition to serving as more spontaneous and passive gathering spaces within the community.

The SNHA design of the new St Charles Public Library explores outdoor space in several different ways.

  • Connection via views to outdoor space and natural light improve the quality of indoor space. The Youth Services Department takes advantage of the connection to the terrace garden for natural lighting, which is not otherwise available given its location in the lower level of the building.
  • Create greater connection to outdoor space by pulling elements from nature to the interior of the building. The Youth Services Department takes its design cues from the adjacent terrace garden, utilizing rock and topographic patterning in the floor finishes and the forms and colors of blades of grass in the play area and book stack end panels. Nature scenes are present in the many wall coverings throughout the space.
  • Utilize outdoor space to expand programming and reach a broader audience. The St Charles Public Library is able to expand both youth and adult programming with the use of the terrace garden for daytime and evening events. The library utilizes its full site to provide outdoor community space for sculptures, accessible gardening, bike repair and pump stations.

As we look toward our next designs and future projects, the design of outdoor space offers an exciting design challenge — and the chance to provide greater value for both clients, end users and surrounding communities. As Matt Busscher, SNHA architect offered, “Outdoor space is so attractive because it provides us with an open space (both physically and mentally) to explore, discover, and feel connected to a larger living ecosystem outside of our own hyper-focused lives.”