Architect’s Corner: Enlivening Urban Areas

Rebuilding Community Through Outdoor Spaces

by Steven Tuttle, PLA, LEED® AP, ASLA, landscape architect & department head, Mackenzie

(Editor’s Note:  Steven Tuttle is a landscape architect and department head at Mackenzie, an integrated design firm based in Portland, Oregon.  He has more than a decade of professional landscape architecture experience throughout the Pacific Northwest and has been involved in a range of projects, including community and neighborhood parks, master plans, and civic projects.)

Over the last year, more people have grown accustomed to using greenspaces.  Individual gardens and backyards have become increasingly valuable, as they are a respite during long workdays spent at home.  Meanwhile, outdoor parks have provided a way to socially interact more safely, offering a renewed sense of energy amidst the pandemic.  Now, as more people are headed back into the office, they will likely miss these escapes that have become so essential to mental well-being.  This is why it’s important to consider the benefits of enlivening urban areas through the practice of landscape architecture, both as a way to connect communities, and to prioritize people’s mental and physical health.

         Parks have been one of the few places in the pandemic where people have been able to fulfill the basic human need for community interaction.  Amidst pandemic restrictions, outdoor areas have allowed people to safely gather, explore nature, and exercise.  They’ve always served as the social fabric of local communities, enlivening cities and encouraging people to get outside and connect with nature and each other. 

         These connections are created when outdoor spaces reflect the communities they serve and naturally fit into the neighborhoods and urban cores.  When these parks speak to the place, and what’s special about that location, they enrich the destination and help expand its cultural details.  From how they’re designed, to what amenities are included, to what local surroundings are featured, outdoor areas should be varied and unique.  

         Take for example a plaza that enables a view of a city’s bay, or an expansive rose garden in a city known for its blooms, or a paving pattern that reflects a location’s history, or a playground defined by natural materials.  Each of these design elements helps to paint the picture of place, detailing the priorities and perspectives of the communities they represent. 

         The design of outdoor spaces should be approached through a hyperlocal lens, and take into consideration the history, ecology, geology, and natural materials of the specific area.  These strategies help ensure that the spaces complement their environments, while emphasizing the area’s best attributes.  Plant selection is one way to do this.  With droughts and global concerns over water availability, as well as an increasingly fragile ecosystem for bees and insects, selecting native species provides localized solutions to broad challenges.  A native plant collection requires less irrigation, supports critical microecosystems, and reflects a true sense of place for a given community.

         Similarly, street trees and green roofs offer not only ecological benefits, but important health benefits as well.  These strategies combat the harmful effects of urban heat islands, created by uninterrupted expanses of paving and rooftops.  The shade and light absorption characteristics of plants help lower the overall temperatures of our cities and improve the comfort of an urban setting.  Not only is our physical health preserved through the regreening of our cities, but our mental health is also treated.  The emotional response to biophilia has been proven to lift our spirits, improve productivity, and reduce stress and anxiety.

         Outdoor areas help inspire and nurture community connections, all while forming cultural distinctions that make individual cities, and even neighborhoods, feel different.  The mental and social well-being of people, and the success of our urban and suburban environments, draw on the expertise of landscape architects to create meaningful spaces that both build energy and offer respite.  As the interstitial spaces of a city affect social and mental health, now is the opportunity to thoughtfully design these areas to better serve their communities.

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