Shifting Needs for Outdoor Design

As the value of better integrated green spaces and the increased physical activity they offer continues to make itself clear, the need for creative solutions is increasing.

The cumulative demand for more outdoor access is driving a shift in urban and workplace design. As awareness of the positive influence of green spaces continues to grow, so does the interest in innovative solutions for urban and office dwellers. Rooftops, balconies, rail lines, city streets, and buildings themselves are now being re-conceived as prime opportunities to improve quality of life and public health through incorporation of natural elements.

Urban Greens

The therapeutic power of natural surroundings has been part of urban design for over a century. Early urban parks in the US, exemplified by New York’s Central Park and others by Frederick Law Olmstead, were intended to recreate the bucolic splendor of a rural landscape. Designed as a respite from the industrial work that was then common, these parks tended to be large and intentionally removed from the economic centers of the city, meant more for a day of strolling and picnicking than a twenty-minute coffee break. 

Creating additional green space in existing urban centers presents some challenges—principally, that all the good spots are already taken. Even back when Central Park was built in the mid-19th century, merely acquiring the land meant the forced eviction of over 1500 people, and cost more than the Federal Government paid for the entirety of Alaska a few years later. Such a project would be all but impossible now.

Instead, demand is growing for public spaces that are more integrated into the places people spend their time. The High Line—a New York City park built on an abandoned elevated rail line—has become a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. There has also been substantial interest in reclaiming thoroughfares for the full range of users, including cyclists and pedestrians, led by firms like Gehl. New York’s Times Square, frequently referred to as “Crossroads of the World,” is now a giant pedestrian plaza fueling commerce and tourism thanks to advocates like Street Plans founder Mike Lydon. His organization employs “Tactical Urbanism” in their development of a range of pilot programs that help the public to see the value of a proposed change and to make incremental progress. Ed Janoff, also of Street Plans, joined our panel at WORKTECH NY to discuss how programs like it have changed the nature of public space in New York City over the last decade.

An important part of being located in an urban setting is taking advantage of the infrastructure that already exists. While city-based work spaces can’t easily have the same integration with the outdoors that suburban campuses might, they can still offer employees access to a variety of public spaces. Many cities offer developers incentives to build them into their projects—in some municipalities, including a public atrium allows a developer to add more height to their building. New York has over 500 of these Privately-Owned Public Spaces (POPS). Urban workplaces can help their occupants to take advantage of these by, for example, creating a guide to those that are adjacent and nearby.

Green Streets are cropping up in cities across the country. These urban public spaces, while bearing little resemblance to Olmstead’s pastoral ideal, serve as a sort of connecting fabric. One particularly inspiring example is the Orchard Streetscape Co-design, which incorporated the input of the community to create a mixed-use street that accommodates pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and leisure use. For a less dense version of this, look to the redevelopment of the Crystal City neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Part of the work with ARExA was designing outdoor elements of a WeLive building to help residents understand how to adapt the space to its new intended use: “At its core it was transitioning a 70’s office park into an active mixed-use neighborhood, and outdoor space is a key way you do that.”

Greening efforts don’t have to be so grand as these, though. In recent years, “parklets” have been popping up on some New York’s less trafficked streets. Inspired by tiny parks on the west coast, the city’s Street Seats program is a public-private effort that supports business owners in creating a green respite from the concrete jungle, offering a range of pre-approved design options and partial reimbursement for construction costs. Even a small patch of green or some seating can make a big difference in the urban experience. In another approach that makes use of existing space requires even less investment, the city of Amsterdam is converting tens of thousands of parking spots to bicycle and pedestrian use.

Blurring the line between Indoors and Out

Outdoor green spaces can play an important role in occupant health. Research has shown that contact with nature can reduce overall stress. As the boundaries between work and the rest of life have blurred, it’s become a matter of both employees’ satisfaction and public health to offer outdoor spaces that support wellness. Typical urban cores, which are often large blocks of office buildings, don’t offer this—getting to access to nature may require traveling a substantial distance to the nearest park. Research indicates that the proximity and features of outdoor spaces may have a greater impact on people’s activity levels than the size of the space. So, if the goal is to help people get more exercise throughout the day, it’s better to have multiple smaller spaces with a variety of features than one big one.

The recent Living Future Unconference promotes the view that designers of buildings and spaces should not simply try to minimize harm; they should aim to actually make positive contributions to both the environment and human health. Luckily, there are ways for designers to give people access to the outdoors throughout their day. For example, an urban rooftop used to be a liability; now it is an asset waiting to be developed into a viewing deck or lounge. Additionally, adopting a more mobile work style, like Activity-Based Working, can encourage people to take full advantage of the outdoor spaces that already exist.

According to Kristen Mueller, who has worked on several projects that incorporate outdoor elements, street furniture is another way that communities are making public space more user-friendly: “One of my favorites is the outdoor furniture at Museums Quatier in Vienna. It was one of the first such projects and is a modular design that allows occupants to rearrange the components in different ways. It’s really engaging, allowing the public to make it their own, and it’s always in use. People love it!”

As we break the boundaries of traditional building, there are also opportunities to bring the outdoors in. We’ve seen three bicycles fastened together to create the base for a mini conference table (not to be confused with Conference Bike). Greenery in the office can have a positive impact on occupant wellbeing and health. Even if real plants aren’t an option, using nature-inspired materials, patterns, and colors softens the boundary between the natural and built environments.

The increased mobility offered by remote and distributed work also means that there are growing numbers of people who can live anywhere they want. If they want to be surrounded by pastoral beauty, they can move to the actual countryside. This applies to entire companies as well; attracting talent and accessing resources no longer requires many businesses to be located in a central business district.

Overcoming Resistance

Efforts to improve outdoor access can sometimes ruffle feathers. The aforementioned Times Square plaza ran into resistance from local business owners who were initially worried that they would lose business. To address this concern, advocates for the project presented data showing that it would encourage people to spend more time in the area, leading to an increase in foot traffic. In addition to a huge drop in traffic fatalities, business in the area is booming. Once such a project demonstrates the possible, future similar efforts become easier. It should be noted that some places are more resistant to change than others.

A strong status-quo bias exists in many urban environments in the US. The combination of data and pilot programs can help to overcome it. PLASTARC has found that resistance to change is often based as much on lack of information and fear of the unknown as it is on concrete concerns about the result. A key component of making green spaces possible at work is involving the whole team throughout the change process, as we did in our work the GSA. In every organization or community there are usually some people who are excited about the future environment. Giving them the data and tools to translate that excitement into advocacy will ease the road to success. On the community scale, you can see this same idea at work in IOBY (In Our Back Yard” – the inverse of the typical NIMBY), which allows people to crowd-fund and campaign for their own community projects.

As the value of better integrated green spaces and the increased physical activity they offer continues to make itself clear, the need for creative solutions is increasing. Workplaces can reap the benefits of happier, healthier, and better performing teams if they make an effort to make nature more accessible.

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