I’ve been thinking a lot about the (underutilized) potential of the outdoors as a strategic tool for community health.
There’s been a lot of interest in the potential of landscape for community health on the scale of urban planning, but I am particularly interested in what can be done on the scale of a site: a park or plaza.
What if we thought about each outdoor space as an asset in a portfolio we could leverage to produce better health outcomes? What if every designer, when presented with a plot of land, designed to produce those outcomes? This doesn’t just mean didactic approaches that hit people over the head with how they should live their lives differently, or ‘branded’ health spaces, this means setting goals for our designs based on greater health on the individual, community and ecosystem levels.
Below are some of the ways I’ve organized outcomes as opportunities designers could try to achieve for their sites, as well as some tools in the ‘toolkit’ designers could use for reaching those goals. I’ve used ‘X’ as a stand-in number because projects will have their own ranges of what’s appropriate, but I do believe that having a specific, numeric goal makes a task all the more real.
1. Increase Biodiversity by X Times
Increasing biodiversity makes our landscapes more resilient, and can make surroundings more beautiful. It also increases supports a wider range of species
-A Diverse planting palette.
-Planting designed to create habitat and food sources for animals and insects.
-Including water in design.
2. Create X Opportunities for Physical Activity on Site
Obviously physical activity is linked to health. I’m also interested in how we can provide alternatives to to more ‘consumptive’ social activities like shopping, TV, etc.
This one’s fun. Everything from the traditional sports–basketball and field sports, to rock climbing walls and shuffleboard (hey, options for all ages.) Nira Rock is a nice example–it’s a rock outcropping that was preserved as a Boston wild. You can walk up the outcropping on a spiral path, or climb up the face using holds they’ve installed.
3. Cleanse Air by X%
Green spaces can do work for rest of the environment. While literature on the specifics of vegetation’s ability to cleanse air is complicated, it is generally seen as providing an ecological service of cleaner air.
4. Provide X Amount Habitat for Pollinators
According to the USDA, pollinators assist 80% of the world’s flowering plants. Flowering plants are key to our food–we’re talking almonds, apples, many other foods. What if outdoors plots on the site scale were part of a strategy to support them?
Vegetation. The Lady Bird Johnson Center has really great resources on supporting pollinators, as well as a handy, regionally-specific database of plants that support pollinators.
5. Increase Time Spent Outside by x%
There is research that shows even hospital rooms with views of the outdoors can decrease recovery time, over rooms that don’t. Getting more people outside also means a chance of getting people in public together, interacting, increasing neighborliness.
This one’s a little more subjective, but I think making a great space that people flock to because it’s visually interesting, has things to do, or ‘fits’ in someone’s social context (eg. it’s close enough for a walk, etc.) make it a draw. How can we make outdoor spaces compete with other activities for people’s precious time?
6. Increase Body-Powered Commuting by X%
Green spaces can be part of a larger transportation network–whether it’s a piece of a larger bikeway system, or is a spine that can get you somewhere you need to go. Even programmatic elements that support a ‘body-powered’ commuting lifestyle, like water fill stations or bike maintenance stations help. I don’t believe that absent of any other programming, ‘if you build it they will come,’ but I think it’s worth asking what the major factors are that allow someone to decide that biking or walking is a viable commuting option, and whether built environment interventions are on that list.
-Circulation strategies to tie into bikeways, and pedestrian ways. I really like the work Utile has done for Boston on ‘Complete Streets.’
-Bike repair and maintenance stations, comfortable, beautiful and safe bus shelters.
7. Increase Walking by X%
Walking is a way to get from A to B, but it’s also a stress reduction method.
-Paths. In big parks, obviously, but I’ve seen park designs including ‘walking loops’ that seemed to work even on sites that seemed too small. The designers used topography and vegetation strategies that closed sightlines to break the park into multiple experiences, and make it feel bigger and more differentiated.
-Visual delight. There’s not really another great way to phrase this–if what you’re walking past is interesting and diverse, it makes the experience of walking past it (even repeatedly) much more worth it.
8. Include at least X Generations
Interrelationships between generations seems to me to be a key component of community health. This is also another form of using outdoor space as a social alternative–creating a venue where multiple generations can spend together.
This one is a spatial strategy task. It means creating both play spaces for youth and teenagers along with spaces to sit, spaces to walk, and picnic spaces. Extra points for designing them in such a way that they encourage interaction among uses instead of just segregation. I think GroundView’s Chuckie Harris Park in Somerville is a great example of this. Its slide is big enough for adults and groups, and its backside (a land mound) is a hill where people can sun and watch kids playing in the sprinkler (which did I mention, doubles as a movie screen for outdoor movies? Brilliant.)
9. Increase Water Quality by x%
Parks can play a role as an underground defense against water rushing into sewer systems in heavy rains and overflowing sewer systems, and picking up particulates and toxins from roads. Well-designed topography, including basins to catch and store water, and having water run through vegetated or sand systems can ameliorate these problems. A plus–if you can store water onsite to irrigate plants, you can save potable water, and the energy it costs to get it there and spray it.
-Rain gardens, vegetation.
10. Produce X Amount of Local Food
Gardens can obviously be food producing! What if the grounds around a hospital provided some of the food for the cafeteria inside? There’s multiple ways to support local foods agendas, whether that’s actually growing food on site, or providing a space for an farmer’s market. Gardening can be therapeutic and get people excited about vegetables and fruits.
-Garden beds, animal coops, beehives and other infrastructure (water, storage space, etc.)
-Programming–space for farmer’s markets, etc.
-Cooking/serving infrastructure like outdoor test kitchens and pizza ovens–can help people learn how to cook fresh foods and create exciting, lived experiences with good foods.
11. Increase Human/Other Species contact by X%
There’s a theory–the ‘biophilia’ theory, as popularized by E. O. Wilson–that humans have an innate desire to affiliate with/be around other life forms. It’s not clear whether that’s true, but being reminded of the existence of other species–especially if they’re lovely to look at or to hear can be good for the soul.
Vegetation, habitat (places to live, hide, etc.) Designing for other species as well as humans. The National Wildlife Federation has a great website where they step-by-step take one through the process of building habitat–through providing food sources, water, cover for animals, and places for them to raise their young safely. Individual gardeners can go through the process and self-certify their gardens as wildlife habitat.
12. Increase Birdsong by X%
This one’s related to the last goal, but birdsong is thought fairly widely to be uplifting, cheerful, relaxing. What if we designed to increase either the number of different birdsongs, the decibel level, the amount of time in the day in which birdsong can be heard?
Vegetation, habitat (
places to live, hide, etc.)
13. Lower Stress of Users by X%
I wanted to end with this one because it is so deeply related to all the other goals. Time outdoors, time away from consumptive culture, time with other generations, physical activity, walking, birdsong, all of these things can lower stress. What if our outdoor species were seen as investments in calmer, happier lives?