By Jordan Wilkinson, Landscape Architect at DG2 Design
Designing parks can be one of the most exciting and challenging parts of a Landscape Architect’s job. Many parks (at least well-designed ones) can be a direct reflection of society’s ever-changing state of mind. A good designer will respond to a multitude of design influences including everything from physical site features to cultural trends. One of the most alarming cultural trends of our society for the past several decades has been a decline in the amount of time we spend outdoors.
Recently Dan Perrault, a Play Advocate for Playworld, came in to our offices at DG2 Design and gave us a presentation titled Making Play More Relevant II. Over sub sandwiches and potato chips, we learned about ways to design parks and playgrounds to encourage more outdoor activity. The main concepts I’m talking about here are a summary of what was addressed in Dan’s presentation to us.
First and foremost, we must recognize that our society has really become one which lives, works, and plays almost entirely indoors. There have been several American and British studies conducted addressing the amount of time that people of all ages spend outdoors, and the findings overall are alarming. This can be attributed to many causes, but among those are a decline in youth sports, fewer jobs outdoors, and lower costs for air-conditioning. It is estimated that the current generation of children spends around half as much time outdoors as their parent did when they were growing up. In certain study groups it was found that prisoners (yes inmates who typically have their outdoor time monitored and limited) could be spending more time outdoors than modern children.
After understanding this trend of a decline in time spent outdoors, how can we as designers respond in an effective manner? Dan’s presentation went on to address a few major groups of our society that are more likely to spend time outdoors than others. Those include millennials, seniors, and ‘motivated families’. I found this particularly interesting as a millennial, and started to think about ways to design spaces that accommodate millennial needs and experiences. It may sound silly, but features as small as charging stations for cell phones and tablets may be enough to create a desirable space for any generation. Along with living in our digital age comes a different frame of mind and an increased desire for ‘photo-opportunities’ and that search for a “bucket-list” experience that we can capture on our smartphones and post online instantly. I was recently at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Garden Glow exhibit and noticed that they are aware to this trend and have literally designed spaces and large picture frames into their winter light exhibit for guests to stop and pose for a selfie. I might think twice about designing a giant picture frame into one of my projects, but this made me think about ways to implement iconic and memorable features that might inspire someone to stop and enjoy the space, even if that means snapping a selfie.
There are many reasons to encourage people to go outside and use their parks and playgrounds. A walk in the park can be therapeutic, and some doctors now are even prescribing outdoor time for their patients to unwind. Outdoor spaces also encourage exercise, physical challenges, and learning from nature. As designers, we must be able to respond to modern trends and needs while at the same time being able to produce designs that are timelessly efficient and responsible to our environment.