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The Increasing Value of Outdoor Urban Spaces

With pandemic forcing our society outdoors, we will all be using park benches, urban forests and park pathways more than usual. Bill Gates predicts that the world won’t return back to normal until the end of 2022, that’s changing a lot of things, namely how we share public space. We’ll see more greenery and common outdoor plazas with the rise of multi-use buildings that need shared common grounds between buildings. 

Landscape architects are greening public space as much as they can, which has obvious environmental benefits. As a result, landscape architects will be even more important than ever. They may have been overlooked in the past as the side dish to the buildings that were designed by architects, but landscape design will see a surge in the coming years.

“The pandemic has undoubtedly transformed many facets of our economies and lifestyles, with millions of people now working from home and redefining their needs for both public and private space,” said Samuele Sordi, chief architect officer of Pininfarina of America. Especially with summer around the corner, those living in small urban quarters will be out on the streets and in parks. “The pandemic has strengthened the value of our community networks and neighborhoods, and we can no longer deny the importance of green space and proximity to nature,” he said. 

We’ve already seen public space come to life again, from outdoor dining to public parks, outdoor plazas with fire pits and communal seating areas. They’re bringing our culture back to that 19th century ‘town square’ feeling where people are brought back together face-to-face, away from their smartphones.

To Sordi, it has created a renewed demand for more sustainable mobility systems, like wider sidewalks for pedestrians and more bike lanes, especially in cities with high population density. “How we decide to stimulate the post-pandemic economy will be crucial,” he said. “Designers and architects will need to develop new models that will create an intelligent coexistence between the natural environment and the built environment, and technology will be an essential component.”

He explains that it’s more than just greening concrete areas of a city. “We envision technology will be better used indoors for applications like integrated greenhouses and hydroponic systems that allow for vertical urban agriculture,” said Sordi. “Ultimately, we believe this integration of food production systems can create completely self-sufficient and sustainable neighborhoods.”

Another project coming to life in Boston, of which recently announced their urban forest plans and have hired landscape architecture firm Stoss Landscape Urbanism to develop the city’s first official Urban Forestry Plan. “Over the next century, infectious disease epidemics are projected to increase in severity and frequency given current trends in urbanization, globalization, and greater consumption of animal proteins,” writes Stoss founding director Chris Reed in the Boston Globe. “One aspect of fostering resilience will involve developing flexible infrastructure in Boston parks to accommodate serious health challenges like the one we face today. When this moment has passed, as it will, envisioning a Boston park system that is more agile in supporting public health should become the norm.”

Stoss is getting urban planning help from Urban Canopy Works. “Trees are a vital component of ​livable communities,” said Rachel Comte, an urban planner with Urban Canopy Works. “And we know that communities can make visionary changes when everyone is at the table.” Her goal is to expand the amount of tree canopy protection for people across the city, as the pandemic is pushing most of us outdoors.

Climate change and air pollution creates significant public health challenges for many urban residents. Planting trees can reduce street level air pollution, studies show. The trees can help make business districts more attractive.

“In our work across the country, we see past history in city development hasn’t always created space for trees, allocated enough resources to care for and protect the trees, and ensured tree canopy is available in all neighborhoods equitably,” said Comte. “We will be exploring all these issues in Boston, together with city staff and the community, with the goal of creating a resilient, sustainable, healthy tree canopy in Boston for decades to come.”

It taps into a larger issue: Commercial leases have never relied more on amenities than ever before. There’s an increased need to interact with fresh air and stay safe, with landlords, property managers, and realtors all making adjustments to accommodate.

One example is the Centerview, an office development complex with 12-story office towers with a 33,000 square foot area of outdoor common spaces, bicycle storage and restaurants, designed by EMMES Realty Services of California LLC, who wanted to bring people together safely in public areas, while taking a break at work.  

“During the pandemic, most outdoor spaces have rendered the best accommodation for work and safe social engagement,” said the lead architect, John Hill of Robinson Hill Architecture. “With such a large plaza, proper distancing is not a problem.”

For shady space, David B. Salkowitz, director of landscape architecture firm LandCreativeInc, wanted to turn the plaza into a mini urban forest with sail-like structures hovering over the space. “They are light and elegant in structure and provide visual and striking interest for this social plaza environment, while at the same time creating comfortable and intimate shaded gathering areas,” he said.

In Los Angeles, the Union Bank Plaza is undergoing a massive renovation, turning its chunky, 1960s, modernist-era designed building and outdoor into a spacious outdoor seating area with fire pits, to be completed this spring by HLW International LLP.

It’s what Justin Collins, a leasing agent for the building, calls “an entirely new vibe,” giving the downtown LA workplace a new garden retail setting, expanded seating areas, leafy landscaping, an indoor and outdoor conference center and fire pits.

The outdoor fireplace is going to pop up a lot this year. Private, outdoor fireplaces, according to Glenn Porto, president of The Landscape Architects Inc, is to provide a luxe environment on a budget (namely, a staycation in our own backyards). “The magic of an outdoor fireplace is that it creates a dramatic focal point and cozy space for relaxing” he said in a statement, “and gives people motivation to be outside even in cooler weather.”

Entertainment venues are changing, too. In Allen, Texas, one 135-acre outdoor space is turning into a multi-use entertainment, leisure, retail, and work venue called The Farm. It’s slated to open next year with a music stage, outdoor lawn with nine restaurants, shared dining space and a boardwalk, among other outdoor common areas.

There’s no doubt that urban landscape architecture is improving public space in cities around the world, from James Corner’s work on New York’s High Line, which has created a green pathway along former railway tracks, to Higham Hill Park in London by vPPR Architects, a wooden amphitheater for locals to gather. 

It’s healthy. Scientists believe green spaces aren’t just good for nature and for our health, but our mental well-being, too, exercising and socializing more, attracting new tenants in cohesive neighborhoods. In one report, residents living near a park were three times more likely of being physically active, reducing obesity by 40 percent.

It isn’t just planting extra trees lining residential streets, though. One of the newest and most creative ways landscape design is entering the workplace is the new urban garden at the new Google mixed-use megaproject in Mountain View, California. A 40-acre space is being turned into office towers and housing spaces, allowing employees to live walking distance to work as part of their Middlefield Park Master Plan. Some are calling it a “massive corporate town,” showing that working from home is not always a done deal. With San Francisco’s rising rents, it isn’t affordable to the younger generation. Could this be an alternative? Mountain View is just a 40-minute drive away. The landscape, designed by landscape architects CMG, puts parks in between the residential buildings and the office towers, almost like buffer space. 

In other places, greening is in the works. Syracuse recently released their urban forest plan, with a goal to plant 70,000 trees over the next 20 years. In Brooklyn’s district of Williamsburg, a new public beach is being built alongside a new park with a cove facing the East River, by Two Trees Management. It’s right by Domino Park, a riverside park in front of the Domino sugar factory, which has recently become a hub for Brooklynites to gather during the pandemic.

It’s almost as if every city is bracing itself for outdoor culture for the years to come, trying to accommodate outdoor activities for the next few years going forward. One of the big beneficiaries will be the landscape architecture industry. But will this outdoor, open-air socializing stay persist in an increasingly digitally minded world? Time will tell.

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