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Archive for the ‘Health + Design’ Category

The Atlantic / Toby Melville, Reuters

The Atlantic / Toby Melville, Reuters

Green Spaces Make Kids Smarter ­– The Atlantic, 6/16/15
“Spending time in nature is correlated with better mental health, attention, and mood in both children and adults. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests green spaces can boost cognitive outcomes in children.”

How the City Handled the Flooded RiverwalkChicago Magazine, 6/16/15
“The designers in charge of the Riverwalk’s recreational transformation are privy to Chicago’s penchant for flash floods. Landscape architect Gina Ford said last October that the city’s unpredictable weather played a significant role in her team’s design.”

New Queens Quay a Redesign for Everyone The Toronto Star, 6/21/15
“Perhaps for the first time, the city has built a thoroughfare for everyone. That means pedestrians, cyclists, skate boarders, roller bladers, babies in strollers, transit passengers, wheelchair users and, yes, drivers.”

Experience on the Water The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/23/15
“Crowned by an inverted pyramid structure, the Pier of St. Petersburg, Florida, leads visitors on a long and narrow journey to the end and back. However, as it stands now, it stops short of providing much value outside of that.”

A New Playground in the Bronx Soaks Up the City’s Problematic Storm WaterThe New York Times, 6/24/15
“The $1 million playground renovation was undertaken by the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation group, and the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, as part of a partnership to turn 40 asphalt-covered play spaces across the city into weapons against water pollution.”

Review: In ‘A Little Chaos,’ a Guileless Kate Winslet Offsets a Lavish Versailles – The New York Times, 6/25/15
“Into this jungle of obscene privilege arrives Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a sturdy, guileless everyday woman chosen by the king’s chief landscape architect, André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), to design the Rockwork Grove, an outdoor arena-like ballroom of tiered steps through which water gushes as an unseen orchestra plays behind the shrubbery.”

A Landscape Architect’s Bridge to New Ideas – The Wall Street Journal, 6/30/15
“As president of the international landscape architecture firm EDSA, Doug Smith has worked in destinations as exotic as Egypt and as local as his home state of Florida.”

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Mia Lehrer, FASLA, advocates for Silverlake Reservoir / Mia Lehrer Associates

We work in a small, but timely profession. Our potential to impact the neighborhoods, communities, and cities where we work is huge. Though landscape architecture professionals make up just a small fraction of the design field, ours is the work that is the first to be seen. Ours is the work that brings function and beauty to parks, plazas, campuses, institutions, and transportation corridors. Ours is a profession that blends the power of design with ecological principals and environmental justice. And because we are few and far between, we have to advocate for what we know.

The responsibility is on us to make our voices heard, not for our own betterment, but for the sake of our communities.

Public awareness is growing around a range of big issues, from humanity’s need for nature to improve our health, to watersheds, drought, and climate change. And yet, those in our profession most able to speak intelligently on these issues, to guide our communities towards thoughtful solutions, remain silent too often.

Those who fill the void may be knowledgeable in some respects, but often they simply have a good sound bite. The media won’t know to ask a landscape architect for a solution, suggestion, or comment if they don’t know what landscape architects can do. And most of them don’t.

We need to educate our media, politicians, and the public on the issues we care most about. In addition to keeping each other informed about lessons learned from the field, landscape architects need to write letters to the editor, speak at city council meetings and land-use committee meetings, and join non-profit boards and advisory groups. We need to present ideas to civic groups, garden clubs, and parent groups. And we’re not talking about advocating for the profession: we’re talking about advocating for our quality of life.

We urge you to:

  • Advocate for regionally and micro climate-appropriate design that minimizes resource use while maximizing benefits;
  • Speak out to conserve existing habitat and create new parks, wildlife habitats, and greenway corridors;
  • Call for nature playgrounds and natural systems in our schools, parks, and institutions to increase human access to nature and its physical, mental, and educational benefits;
  • Ask for more flexible policies to support rainwater capture, graywater reuse, and recycled water use and reduce unnecessary use of potable water;
  • Fight to ban plastic materials, such as bags, bottles, furnishings, and grass, to stop the incessant addition of toxins into our oceans and food chain;
  • Advocate for more transit and pedestrian and bicycle options and mixing land uses to cut our need for automobiles;
  • Specify local, non-toxic, reclaimed, and reclaimable natural materials;
  • Educate the public about the need to design with plants that provide food for pollinators and people.

Our firm is widely known in Los Angeles, and beyond, for being vocal. We go to public meetings about water conservation, school sites, citizen science, agriculture, forests, and the Los Angeles River. We go to lectures about climate change, drought, food deserts, park poverty, water quality, and environmental justice. We listen, form opinions, speak and write. We get our voices heard.

We might annoy you. And that’s okay. Because we believe we can make a difference in where we live and how we live to make a better future for all of us. And we hope you do, too.

This guest op-ed is by Mia Lehrer + Associates, an internationally-known, award-winning firm made up of landscape architects, urban designers, environmental planners, and a team of multidisciplinary designers based in Los Angeles. Read their recent op-ed in The Los Angeles Times.

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Adults and children with autism experience the world much differently than we do, so why don’t we design homes, parks, and neighborhoods with them in mind? To do this, designers need to take into account the diverse range of experiences for people with autism spectrum disorder, who now account for more than 1 percent of the population. It truly is a spectrum of disorders. As Sherry Ahrentzen, professor of housing studies at the University of Florida and co-author of the upcoming book, At Home with Autism: Designing for the Spectrum, explained at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles, “if you know one person with autism, you really know just one person with autism.”

Autism spectrum disorder is a “psychological, cognitive disorder that creates intellectual and mood disabilities.” People with autism have a “blend of cognitive strengths and weaknesses.” In general, they have the capacity for “detailed thinking, expansive long-term thinking, and examining complex patterns.” But they have problems with “understanding social nuances, filtering stimuli, and planning daily living.”

However, Ahrentzen argues that “autism isn’t just a medical condition, it’s also a cultural one.” To help people with autism, “we must first acknowledge the diversity of human conditions.” To do this, we must understand that “disability is really a social construction. We create environments that enable or disable people.”

Kim Steele, director of urban and health initiatives at the elemental group, co-author of At Home with Autism, has a daughter with autism. In her effort to create a more empathetic environment for her, Steele seems to have truly learned what it means to have autism. Steele and Ahrentzen also interviewed many people with autism to better understand how they experience the environment and to create design guidelines that will improve their quality of life:

“People with autism focus on details, not global perspective. A fleck of white on a shirt, a flickering light, a noise command attention. Their default is too many details.” While this focus may work well for some types of work that are repetitive and require attention to detail, “it can be a huge problem, as too much input is stressful.” For example, Steele’s daughter will flap and rock to help refocus attention into something more manageable. “Outside, in the neighborhood, she will fall on the ground and collapse when the details are too much.”

To alleviate the stress from all this stimuli, planners, landscape architects, and architects need to make the built environment “more predictable and familiar,” perhaps simpler. For example, for most of us, the “kitchen is a place to prepare food, socialize, and eat.” For those with autism, “it must be a place to prepare food only, you eat and socialize somewhere else.” In another example, Steele explained how hallways can only be seen as conduits. They are not places to stop and talk. “Multi-functional spaces are not acceptable. The meaning is environments is very specific.” To help those with autism, designers must create places that “create transparency through spatial sequences and smooth transitions between uses.”

Those with autism have various levels of receptivity to the environment, so creating quiet, safe spaces with high-quality lighting is important, too. “Some display hyper-receptivity. This means they may have a problem with noise.” For one person with autism they spoke to, “the noise was so disorientating, she couldn’t find her body in space.” However, in contrast, some people with autism experience “hypo-receptivity, meaning they are under responsive to stimuli.” Steele’s daughter has this issue. “She can touch a hot stove burner and not realize she is burning herself. She can scald herself in the shower and not know it.”

Outside the home, smaller spaces with fewer details may be better. For example, those with autism avoid big box stores. “The acoustics and lighting are bad.” According to one person with autism they interviewed, they only go to small shops, which are more manageable.

For landscape architects, those with autism will want residential landscapes and public gardens and parks that are “controlled environments they view as safe.” They will also want “things you can lift, engage with.” They like swings and “almost universally love to swim.” In fact, those with autism will be “drawn to water in all forms,” which can also be dangerous. “Designers will need to create safe swimming pools.” But Steele also cautioned that hyper-receptive people will be overwhelmed with “gardens with too many different plants.”

Eve Edelstein, New School of Architecture & Design, said that “moving through any environment involves the same plastic part of our brains.” Edelstein, a leader in the emerging field of “neuro-architecture,” argues that design guidelines for indoors then relate to outdoors, too. “What we learn works for hospitals will also work in gardens. It’s about brain function in space.” She added that what will be good for those with autism will also work for those with a range of other disabilities, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Edelstein believes the journey from theory and design guidelines to actual practice in the world at large will be a “tough one.” An interdisciplinary design approach is a must for any project that will be more soothing to those dealing with the constant onslaught of too many details.

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Horizon at ocean / Yoga Buds Buzz

“Beautiful natural places restore our ability to concentrate. But what about sacred places?,” asked South Dakota State University landscape architecture professor Donald Burger, ASLA, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles. “Is there a difference between a sacred and a beautiful place?”

Burger uses Margaret Somerville’s definition of sacred, as described in her book, The Ethical Imagination. The feeling of sacred is the “complex interaction of knowing ourselves, relating to others, appreciating our place in the great web of life, and seeing ourselves as part of the earth, stars, universe, and cosmos.” Being in a sacred landscape makes us “less selfish,” and can help us understand “our role in the greater scheme of things.”

Which natural landscape features most factor into a sacred experience? To find out, Burger interviewed 70 people, asking them where they had experiences of sacredness. Almost all people chose “mountain top views, the place where the ocean meets the horizon, or where the prairie meets the horizon.” It seemed to Burger these places create a sense of “infinite scale, continuing forever.”

In the second phase of his study, Burger asked people to rate 120 photographs on a scale of 1-10 in terms of “which landscapes most facilitated a sacred experience.” And to see if there is a difference between sacredness and beauty, he also asked them to rate them all in terms of which they preferred, or thought were most beautiful, and then compared the top 15 for each category. The people who rated the photographs said they had a hard time differentiating between beauty and sacredness. “It was difficult to judge slides on sacredness but discard them for beauty.”

Burger explained that there are four factors of preference: coherence, legibility, complexity, and mystery. “Sacred photographs are high in coherence and legibility, but low in complexity and mystery levels are mixed.” Furthermore, sacred slides often have “remarkable lighting conditions, with clouds, sunsets, mist or fog, and a mix of light and dark.”

Then, three groups of people, more than 250 in total, were purposefully stressed out, using the standard psychological tests. One control group was shown a regular set of photos, while another looked at the preferred or beautiful photographs, and a third viewed the sacred photographs. “The beautiful and sacred slides really had the same restorative effect. In fact, they left happier than when they came in.”

Burger concluded that perhaps sacredness and beauty are the same. “Maybe beauty gives us a better appreciation of our context. Maybe beauty and sacredness are a matter of semantics and the same thing.”

But he also said the perception of sacredness has an impact, because it shapes the types of landscapes “we want to emulate and also preserve.” A sacred experience “shapes the decisions we make because we sense they have an impact on things, the greater system beyond ourselves.”

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Fractals / Mikyoung Kim Design

“This is the image that sits above my computer screen. It’s a fractal form, which explains how we work. Within fractals, there are similar forms but at different scales. The molecular scale and broad scale work together as a whole. Fractals are a system. You can’t draw an outline of a fractal and fill it in, or create a bottom-up modular system and put one together. Fractals are about the overarching structure,” said Mikyoung Kim, FASLA, head of her namesake landscape architecture firm, in a lecture at the National Building Museum.

Fractals relate to her creative process. Just as at the broad scale — or the aerial view — you can see human behavior patterns, at the molecular scale, she is thinking of “one person, and their multi-sensory experience within that place.” However, having said all of that, Kim also believes that landscape architects “can’t predict how a public space will be used and allow for flexibility.”

Kim described a few projects that show her attention to both the broad and human scales, and how they fit together into a system:

ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden

She won an international design competition to create the ChonGae Canal Source Point Park, with its Sunken Stone Garden in Seoul, South Korea. For Kim, it was a great experience working there, as she is a Korean American born in Hartford, Connecticut. She discovered that Seoul has 22 million people, which is about half the population of South Korea as a whole. It’s 8 times denser than NYC, with 16,000 people per square mile.

The 7-mile-long ChonGae Canal was once a river that collected water from surrounding mountains. The river was one of the reasons Seoul became the capital of Korea in the late 1300s. Over the decades, it became a conduit for wastewater and raw sewage. “By the early 1960s, it had become a symbol of poverty, and so dangerous that you couldn’t even touch the water.” It was eventually covered over with an elevated highway, dividing the city.

The Seoul government took down the highway and decided to open up the river again. They brought day light back to the corridor and improved the water quality to class 2 level, which was really difficult. The new river corridor park had to handle monsoons and 100-year storms. “But, really, it was about bringing back national pride.”

Kim worked with the international team restoring the river, but focused on one piece: a stone garden at the source point. With this project, Kim realized landscape architecture can have significant political impact. This landscape has caused the city to rethink its relationship with the water, and changed perceptions about what’s possible with public space.

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ASLA 2009 Professional Awards General Design Award. ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden / Taeoh Kim

Also, the landscape itself is politically charged. In the era of the optimistic “Sunshine Policy” just a few years ago, when South Korean leaders thought reunification with North Korea was imminent, the ChonGae Canal Source Point Park was to be the site of the reunification ceremony.

There are ceremonial aspects of the landscape: Kim set 9 stones to represent the 9 provinces of Korea as a whole. The stones represent the “collective effort of this urban park, adding a layer of cultural significance.” Beyond the cultural aspect, Kim says the park, which has been visited by 20 million people since its opening, has led to $600 million in private sector development along the river corridor.

Through the Sunken Stone Garden, Kim came to the conclusion that the “most successful projects are ones where we don’t have to hire a photographer. If we can find lots of photos through Pinterest, Facebook, Flickr, we’ve been successful. Successful public spaces are canvases with a design language and character, but can embrace different kind of activity and discovery.”

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ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden / Mikyoung Kim Design

Farrar Pond Residence

Kim said she does very little residential work, but she created a 3-acre landscape in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which links to Walden Pond. The clients had but one requirement: no lawn, but an outdoor space were the kids and dogs can run. They ended up deciding there would be no imperious surfaces on the property.

“The big star of show is this CorTen fence structure that contains the dogs. Our client was really two German Shephards.” The fence is designed to just keep these particular dogs in. Kim’s team measured the dogs from shoulder to shoulder to determine what the width of the fence openings should be. A dachshund that visited was able to slip right through. The fence was welded on site, so it fits the regraded landscape “like a glove.”

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ASLA 2007 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Farrar Pond Residence / Mikyoung Kim Design

On the ground are lilac bluestone pavers and granite stepping stones. As her client said, “it looks like the void of fences have fallen out to create this pattern.”

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ASLA 2007 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Farrar Pond Residence / Mikyoung Kim Design

140 West Plaza: Exhale

“We like smaller cities where we can make an even bigger impact.” In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a “charming, historic university town, ” Kim worked with local developers to create a master plan for a new downtown park. Kim and her team concurrently looked at circulation, including bicycle infrastructure, plazas, and stormwater. They found that the mixed use developments were creating lots of surface stormwater run-off.

So Kim created a brilliant solution called Exhale. Instead of storing the run-off in gardens, she convinced them to exhale the cleansed runoff through an artful misting system. “If there is no extraneous water from the site, there is no mist.” Kim choreographed the experience, creating a score of sorts, with light and mist, which grows and dies back. “It’s like the sculpture is breathing.”

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Exhale / Mikyoung Kim Design

At night, Exhale is a magnet, particularly in the hotter months when the mist is on, as it reduces temperatures by 10 degrees. “Kids are willing to get soaking wet. They run and around and engage it.”

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Exhale / Mikyoung Kim Design

The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago

“I’ve always really been into healthcare. And now, healthcare is interested in us. Every facility wants a garden, which is much different from 20 years ago.” Still, at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Kim felt pressure to deliver. “We were taking 8,000 square feet out of a vertical hospital to build a garden instead of a new MRI center. How does that equal out?” While she said her husband, who is a doctor, would take issue with the statement that “gardens heal people,” gardens do “transform our bodies in ways that can’t hurt. Within 3-5 minutes, it has been proven that gardens normalize blood pressure, heart activity, muscle tension, and brain electrical activity.”

In this healing garden on the 11th floor, there were enormous constraints. Given so many young patients there have weak immune systems or just had surgery, they couldn’t be exposed to organic materials like soil or plants. There have been cases of people catching Legionnaire’s Disease from fountains, so water features were out, too.

Kim and her colleagues finally convinced the hospital to allow bamboo in raised planters that patients wouldn’t be able to access. The soil that holds them is 98 percent inorganic. “Basically, the only thing that will grow in soil like that are weeds, and bamboo is a lovely weed.” The hospital staff have committed to putting a tarp on the bamboo and spraying them three times a year to keep them clean.

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ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago / George Heinrich Photography

To get around the fact that no open water could be allowed, Kim created water features that bubble up through marble. And a fallen tree, which Frederick Law Olmsted planted in a park in Chicago more than 100 years ago, was reclaimed and turned into wonderfully tactile benches and interactive art pieces. Sealed together with resin and lit from within, the tree sculptures also feature kids’ hand prints, which when touched, activate sounds of water.

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ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago / Mikyoung Kim Design

Learn more about Mikyoung Kim’s new projects, like 888 Boylston in Boston, at her web site.

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Central Park, New York City / Drive the District

There has been a boom in studies demonstrating the health benefits of spending time in nature, or even just looking at nature. But a group of ambitious landscape architects and psychologists are actually trying to determine how to prescribe a “nature pill.” The big remaining questions are: What dose of nature exposure is needed to achieve maximum mental and physical health benefits (how long and how frequently)? And what form of nature works best? In a talk at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles, MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA, a landscape architect and ecologist at the University of Michigan, described her efforts to create the guidelines for landscape designs that can lead to the greatest impact.

Hunter and her team examined 44 people over 8 weeks. She asked them to go out and immerse themselves in urban natural environments at least 2.5 times per week for a minimum of 10 minutes. Using a custom-designed smartphone app, these people walked or sat in nature and then answered questions about their mental well-being, both before being exposed to nature and then after. They were asked to record the types of landscapes they saw, the weather, and then take photographs of their preferred views, “scenes they were drawn to, that gave them that ‘ahhhh’ feeling.” As the walked and recorded their thoughts, the app also tracked their location.

The early results show that the “nature pill works.” Among all participants, they reported significantly less stress, an increased ability to focus, and increased satisfaction with their mood and energy levels after being exposed to nature. But Hunter admitted that “self-reported data is viewed as worthless; people want physical proof,” so before and after the nature exposure, they also studied participants’ cortisol levels, a physical indicator of stress, which correlated with the self-reported responses more than 60 percent of the time. She said this shows the data is largely credible.

Hunter said it’s still too soon to tell what the optimal dose of the nature pill is, but even just “10 minutes is effective.” While the data is still being analyzed, Hunter and her colleagues also found that “there was no correlation between weather and the restorative effects.” There were greater restorative effects in residential landscapes or small parks. In fact, the benefits seemed to be greater in “small, enclosed spaces,” but this could also be a function of how the participants’ neighborhoods were set-up. It’s not clear whether large parks were actually nearby those studied.

The definition of nature was loose, so, in the next stages of the research, Hunter is trying to define it more specifically. For example, vegetation, hills, rivers, or large bodies of water can all be considered nature, so she began a process of listing all the physical attributes defining the environment to find out which have the most restorative benefits. She categorized the 470 photographs study participants took through the app with 60 attributes, covering factors like naturalness, complexity, structural coherence, form, proportion, openness, access, and engagement. There were some 23 structural attributes, like “horizontal line, skyline, or canyon form,” 13 contextual attributes, and another 30 landscape attributes.

Now that there are a set of photographs with clear attributes, Hunter can begin testing theories. For example, Roger Ulrich, who is perhaps the most celebrated health and nature researcher, posited that symmetries, repeated elements, and focal points helped stress recovery more than other forms. Using the categorized photographs, she can begin to see whether this is true.

Hunter hopes to have her exciting findings ready to present at the ASLA Annual Meeting in Chicago in November. “We are still working on deciphering the nature pill.” Her eventual goal is to create a methodology that can be replicated all over the world, given other cultures have such a different appreciation of nature. “Other researchers can use the procedure but adapt specifics.”

Here are brief summaries of other fascinating health and nature studies at EDRA:

Dongying Li, a landscape architecture PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examined whether exposure to nature for high school students improved their ability to deal with stress. She tracked 150 high school students in Illinois with GPS devices and asked them to keep an active diary each night. Li also collected various mood-related data every day. In her exploration of a new “time/space model,” she found that simply estimating the level of use of green spaces in an area based on proximity to those spaces doesn’t really work. Students with three-hour windows of opportunity who could have accessed green spaces often didn’t in reality. “Potential versus realized exposure can be different.” For Li, the take-home message was “design green spaces that are walking distance. Parks in neighborhoods may not be enough.” William Sullivan, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is doing much of the exciting research on nature and health, added that “nature needs to be at every doorstep. We don’t know where people will wander.”

Jane Buxton, a PhD student in regional planning at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, conducted a novel study to find out whether increased tree canopy influences people’s preferences for urban density. She found that “trees will help people accept density.” Buxton showed 24 photographs, some of which were manipulated to incorporate more trees, to 70 residents of Worcester, Massachusetts, the second largest city in New England, asking them to circle the choices that “best describe where you want to live.” The highest preference was for single-family homes set in a rich tree canopy; the lowest preference was for apartments close to street with a lack of trees. Greening made a difference. In almost all cases, the scores went up as more trees were added. She concluded that “there is a tension between higher density and what people actually want: single-family homes. Trees can ameliorate that tension up to a point.” She also believes that “people will need to chose higher density if it’s going to work. It can’t be seen as something that will be forced on people.”

Pongsakorn “Tum” Suppakitpaisarn, a PhD student in landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Bin Jiang, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, want to figure out if people’s preferred landscapes reduce stress. Preference, as defined, is “spontaneous, aesthetic,” but also about survival. Suppakitpaisarn showed slides of a winding open path in a park versus a dark hallway through a crumbling building, explaining how most everyone will prefer the open path, because it appears less dangerous. There’s a reason for that preference: it’s about survival. Through a set of studies, he stressed people out by asking them do math and perform in a job interview in front of unresponsive, unhelpful people and then asked them to watch nature videos and rank their preferences for the green scenes, which aided in stress recovery. He found that preference predicts stress recovery in women but “we’re not sure about men.” Why should we care? “Stress is expensive to measure, with all the physiological measurement equipment, but preference is easy to measure.”

Sara Hadavi, a research associate at the University of Michigan, looked at various types of green spaces in 3,400 acres of Chicago. Using mail-in surveys and on-the-street-interviews, she got 434 people to respond to her questions about nearby nature and well-being. Hadavi found that “open lawns with trees had a positive effect on well-being, even if they aren’t used. Just knowing that they are there is enough to inspire satisfaction with public spaces, which in turn improves well-being.” She said this kind of information is important for planners and landscape architects who may think the only measure of success for a public space is direct use. But she added if city leaders really want to boost well-being, landscape architects should create spaces where people can socialize and then encourage them to visit through lots of programs. Hadavi called for more widespread use of “user-oriented design, which will have better outcomes than designer-oriented design.”

Eva Silveirinha de Oliveira, a landscape architect and researcher at Open Space in Scotland, is testing out a new environmental audit tool on woodlands. “Urban woodlands are part of green infrastructure systems, but their quality varies. They are not usually managed or maintained in Scotland.” Sending out two trained landscape architects, she completed 18 audits, and found the tool works in helping us to “get a sense of whether a place will attract or repel us.” She said the views of the urban woodlands among the landscape architects and the locals she surveyed who live near them were different though. “Landscape architects recorded much lower ratings than the community.” Like Hadavi, Silveirinha de Oliveira found that people valued nearby nature even if they didn’t use it.

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Blind person in a park / The Lighthouse

The blind are far from a monolithic group. There are those who are congenitally blind, meaning they had no eye sight at birth, and then there are those who became blind later in life. These two categories of blind people may navigate the built environment a bit differently. Describing a very small study of how congenitally-blind and late-blind people navigate a shopping district and an urban park in Izmir, Turkey, Fehmi Dogan, professor of architecture at the Izmir Institute of Technology, presented some interesting observations at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles.

Congenitally-blind people may more easily access their other senses, like touch, smell, and hearing, while late-blind people may more easily use their memory to navigate. In general, the blind were most aware of sound and least aware of temperature changes. Both groups preferred navigating the busy streets, with all their obstacles, to the park. For the blind overall, the city is a truly “multi-sensory phenomenon.”

Of the seven participants (4 men and 3 women), the mean age was 28. Each uses a white cane or “eye stick” to get around. “They all have a self-sustaining life and are good travelers,” added Dogan. Each participant was sent through a set of trials for 6 hours, walking a 900-meter-path either through a busy commercial district or a park, each with a range of obstacles to confront.

Researchers walked the paths with them the first go-around and then they walked it again alone and were asked to describe important reference points, including whether they used their memory or a sense (touch, smell, or hearing) to navigate. These reference points, which totaled in the hundreds, were then examined in greater detail. Dogan emphasized that this study is in “no way generalizable or conclusive,” but merely observational.

In the shopping district, the congenitally blind were especially attuned to all the sensory experiences on the course. Even the congenitally blind can see light and dark. “They followed the echo of the sun.” They also closely read air movements, so they could sense when they had reached a crosswalk or intersection because the air flow changed.

Dogan read from some of the blind participants’ own references. The sound of high heels clicking on a sidewalk helped one subject orient themselves. They used echos to identify the streets on three sides. Another listened for the time it took for a bird to leave the ground and alight on a building roof, which allowed them to calculate the roof’s height.

For some, texture was significant. They followed the drain inlets in streets. “On straight walks, they needed to use the inlets to create a line to follow.”

And among the congenitally blind, the sense of smell was most used. They were able to plot themselves based on the smell of coffee, corn, even new clothes. However, smell can easily change with air movement.

For the late blind, all these other senses were also used, but they could more easily use their memory to determine where they were. One remembered that when they heard street sellers, they turned to reach the end point. They could tell they were near the street sellers when they hear the sound of paper bills. “Late blind didn’t comment on touch.”

For both the congenitally blind and late-blind, the park was more challenging. “It all smelled like grass. It was much harder to navigate because it was so homogenous.” All participants felt more safe and comfortable in the shopping district, despite all of its obstacles. “This is because they could ask questions when people were around them.”

Dogan said for the blind, “spatial experiences are understood more if they are multi-dimensional.”

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Aga Khan Park / Darren Calabrese, The Globe and Mail

Minneapolis, St. Paul Tie for Title of Best City ParksThe Star Tribune, 5/20/15
“For the third straight year, Minneapolis has been judged to have the best city parks in the country. But this year, it’s sharing that distinction with a familiar rival: St. Paul.”

We Are What We Landscape Psychology Today, 5/21/15
“What messages do we see in a lawn? Some scholars believe that the attraction is primal. Lush green foliage requires water and so do we. Perhaps the visage of a lawn with shrubs and trees gives us comfort because it signals that we can survive in this place.”

Toronto Receives New Addition to Cultural Mosaic: The Aga Khan Park Global News, 5/26/15
“The 6.8 hectare urban park is the newest part of a complex that also hosts The Aga Khan Museum and The Ismaili Centre.  Both of those buildings were opened to much fanfare eight months ago.  Together they complete a project that broke ground five years ago on the site of the former Bata Shoe headquarters.”

The $6.5 Billion, 20-Year Plan to Transform an American CityFast Company, 5/26/15
“That’s an audacious 20-year plan by Rochester, the Minnesota state government, the Mayo Clinic, and their private partners to spend more than $6.5 billion on a kind of real-life version of SimCity, designed to turn Rochester into a global biotech hub, and double its population in the process.”

The City Feeding the City: Urban Orchard Bears Fruit – The Australian Financial Review, 5/28/15
“Green space, on its own, is definitely worth adding to a cityscape. But a green space that is used to grow food is even better.”

Why Aga Khan Park Risks Becoming a White Elephant The Globe and Mail, 5/28/15
“Will the delights of this place eventually outweigh its disadvantages? Let’s hope so, because this rich museum and its gracious park bear many of the characteristics of a white elephant.”

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Seniors Week, Tai Chi Academy, Royal National Park, Audley, Australia / Australian Academy of Tai Chi

The senior population is growing. By 2050, a third of the U.S. will be 65 and older. The World Health Organization, AARP, and other organizations have called for more age-friendly communities, with parks and open space that offer what seniors needs to feel safe, but not enough are heeding their call. One question that came up in a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Seattle is whether future parks need to be designed to be inter-generational, or designed specifically for the elderly. Two academics and a landscape architect argued the research shows seniors do better when they are around all age groups, but they need specific things to feel safe and comfortable in parks and other open spaces. If they don’t have them, they are far less likely to venture into these places.

Lia Marshall, a PhD student at the Luskin School of Public Health, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), said older adults have a preference for “aging in place,” meaning staying in their community. They need independence. This group — like any other broad category — is amazingly diverse, both socially and culturally. Walking is their most common physical activity, so “distance to the park affects use.” But many older people are also at the risk of isolation, which can result in mental health problems. This group is also among the least active, which can also lead to physical health issues.

Parks are too often created for children or able-bodied adults. But they can be designed with a set of aging principles. Through a set of 8 focus groups conducted with elderly about their park use in Los Angeles, Marshall found that they all share “an enjoyment of natural beauty, with an appreciation for tranquility, plants, and fresh air.” Being in a park encouraged social interactions, which led to more physical activity. “Group activities — like Tai Chi in the park — lead to friendships and more exercise.”

But the elderly polled were also fearful, with their greatest fear being falling. “Breaking a hip can mean losing their homes and moving into a retirement facility.” For them, other primary threats were “disrespect by younger generation, robbery, drugs, and crime.” Environmental threats include: “uneven ground surfaces, trash caused by the homeless, a lack of visibility with walking paths, a lack of shade, and excess heat or cold.” Those with canes, walkers, and wheelchairs feel even more vulnerable outdoors. Marshall pointed to a park right next to a senior center in Los Angeles that wasn’t used by the elderly because “gang members are there.” Overall, “seniors are afraid of their communities but also want to be involved.”

So how can communities create parks where seniors feel safe? Madeline Brozen, UCLA Lewis Center, has developed a set of guidelines for senior-friendly open spaces. Recommendations, which aren’t much different from general park design best practices, include:

Improve control: Provide orientation and way finding with large, visible fonts. “The park layout needs to be legible.” Signs should be 54 inches off the ground or lower, so people in wheelchairs can also see them.

Offer greater choice: “Everyone values options, such as passive or active recreation, sun or shade, single or multiple seating. Chairs should be movable.” Brozen emphasized that the group older than 65 is incredibly diverse, from “not old to advanced dementia,” so they have different needs.

Create a Sense of Security: “There should be shade but not too much so it feels enclosed.” Parks should enable “eyes on the street.” Isolated areas need good maintenance. Sidewalks should be wide and smooth. Check spaces between paved and unpaved areas to make sure there aren’t spots where a cane or wheelchair can get caught.

Accessibility: If a park is a good distance from a senior facility, add benches along the way so there are place to stop. Parks should have no more than a 2 percent grade for those in wheelchairs.

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ASLA 2006 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Elizabeth & Nona Evans Restorative Garden Cleveland Botanical Garden, Cleveland, Ohio by Dirtworks / K. Duteil

Social support: Design should facilitate interaction. Parks can feature bulletin boards, outdoor reading rooms, sculptures and fountains that help start conversations.

Physical activity: Parks should also feature mile markers for encouragement. “These kinds of things are low impact, high benefit.” Exercise machines should be under shaded areas.

Privacy: Use buffer plants to reduce street noise.

Nature: Bring in water features, which are relaxing and beautiful. Make sure they are wheelchair accessible. And lastly, parks should highlight natural beauty.

For Portland-based landscape architect Brian Bainnson, ASLA, Quatrefoil Inc, and ASLA Oregon Chapter Trustee, there is even more that can be done, beyond A.D.A. requirements — and, really, the guidelines listed above. “ADA is really just the bare minimum. It leaves out so many users.” Bainnson said when designing for seniors, “you are really designing for everyone, but there are other hazards you have to be aware of.” For example, contemporary parks often feature these sleek, backless, armless benches that are essentially useless for the elderly. “Without an armrest, they can’t lower themselves into the bench or get out of it, so they just won’t use it.”

Bainnson recommended the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) guidelines, which call for “scheduled, programed activities that create park use; access ramps; raised beds; a profusion of plant-people interactions; and benign and supportive conditions.”

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Raised beds. ASLA 2010 Professional Research Honor Award. Access to Nature for Older Adults: Promoting Health Through Landscape Design. Multi-Regional USA / Susan Rodiek

Plants should appeal in all four seasons. Park and garden designers need to be aware of wind direction and the sun path to create both wind-free and shaded areas. He added that designers must reduce sharp differences between light and dark. “Hip fractures from falling can occur as the elderly navigate the transition from deep shadow to bright light. They think it’s a step and they can trip up. There should be a middle ground, a transition zone.”

Bainnson has designed more than 20 therapeutic landscapes, including the Portland Memory Garden and parts of the Legacy Emanuel Children’s Garden. The Portland Memory Garden, which is designed for users with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia as well as well as their care-givers and families, is an enclosed loop, with a central entrance and exit, which is not only soothing to those suffering from dementia but ensures they don’t wander off.

The single entrance and exit means nurses or family members can also keep an eye out from a central place. Built in 2002 with $750,000 in privately-raised funds, the Memory Garden has “no dead ends or choices. You just follow the curve.” Concrete pathways are tinted to reduce glare. Their outer edges have a different color. Raised curbs on the edge of the sidewalks help ensure users don’t fall into the lawns. Bathrooms are extra large in case nurses or family members need to go in with someone in their care.

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Portland Memory Garden / Brian Bainnson

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Portland Memory Garden / Brian Bainnson

For true open spaces, seniors also have special needs. Bainnson is now working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on national wildlife refuges near Portland to make them more accessible to seniors, by putting in trails, accessible paths, and readable signs. He said they may not be able to access the whole system — as the city wants to keep the trails as natural as possible — but these steps will make it easier.

Marshall, Brozen, and Bainnson all made the case: consider seniors when designing public spaces. Why exclude? “What works for seniors will work for everyone.” These spaces will also work for all those people with any other cognitive or physical challenge, like veterans dealing with PTSD, people with prosthetic legs, or anyone in a wheelchair.

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Zorlu Center playground / © IJreka

Since its founding nearly 20 years ago, Carve Landscape Architecture in the Netherlands has become one of the most interesting landscape architecture firms creating adventure-filled playgrounds. Their projects are immediately recognizable, with their use of bold colors, architectural forms, and incorporation of challenging obstacles, including steep-looking climbing objects and chutes and slides. Their embrace of strong forms and color and adventurous play makes the typical American playground, which has been made so safe out of the fear of lawsuits, look rather bland and tame in comparison. Their playgrounds are like parkour courses for kids, of all ages. Increasingly international, they’ve moved beyond the Netherlands to create exciting new projects in Turkey and Singapore.

In Istanbul, Turkey, Carve partnered with mutlti-disciplinary design firm WATG last year to create Zorlu Center playground, the largest in Istanbul. The result is a play space like no other, with a purple palette running throughout.

Carve and WATG created zones for different age groups, orchestrating a progression moving from simpler (and safer) zones for younger children to more challenging ones for older children. These zones are inspired by natural landforms, as Carve describes creating “hills, valleys, and mountains.” Using the best biophilic design principles, within the zones, there are both refuges, places where kids can hide out, and also prospects, like a net-filled climbing tower. And to the side of this adventure wonderland is a terrace where parents can socialize while also keeping an eye out.

The entry zone is for the youngest children. At Landezine, Carve explains: “The entrance area has gentle hills to climb on, slide down, and explore. On these hills, play-shapes host numerous elements for the smaller children, like trampolines, spinners, climbing nets, hammocks, and a slide.”

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Zorlu Center playground / © IJreka

At the next stage, the hills become a valley. “Here, a hidden world can be explored: a bridge, giant netting structure, and a family slide, ready to be used by a whole bunch of children at the same time. The site is embraced by a natural landform, keeping children safe in the play area.”

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Zorlu Center playground / © IJreka

And then the valleys become mountains. Rows of walls become opportunities for climbing, running, and sliding. “Together these walls act like a giant coulisse, which changes shape depending from one’s angle. It is an adventure to play here: a labyrinthian system of tunnels, sliding walls, ‘birds nests’ and lookout points and narrow alleys. Once you’re inside the mountain, there are numerous ways to get up to the highest point. The giant slide from the valley-landscape crawls up the hill, connecting both parts of the playground. In a roller-coaster slide of seconds, you’re in the heart of the playground again!”

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Zorlu Center playground / © IJreka

At its height are two towers. The three-story tower, which is only accessible via the mountain range, includes a slide that takes kids back to the center of the playground. And the top of the second, a four-story tower, can only be reached via climbing nets within. What kid wouldn’t want to play here?

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Zorlu Center playground / © IJreka

In Singapore last year, Carve created Interlace, a smaller bright-blue playground, modeled after the OMA-designed apartment blocks where most of the kids in the neighborhood live. “While most playgrounds are a contrast to their surroundings – in color, shape, and activity – the new Interlace playground is the mini-version of the surrounding residences.”

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Interlace / Tucky’s Photography

Within the blocks, there are kid-sized spaces that house a maze. “The ‘closed’ facade gives children the thrill of being invisible, while the perforations actually ensure looking both inside and outside. Also, the perforated facades allow for shading and a continuous wind breeze, creating a cool climate inside the boxes, while stretching the borders of the conception of inside-outside.”

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Interlace / Tucky’s Photography

And it’s worth highlighting Osdorp Oever, a playground Carve built in Amsterdam in 2013 that features a bright Dutch orange “climbing parkour” set between trees, with four “cocoons,” crossing points in the pathway.

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Osdorp Oever / Carve

At 15-feet off the ground, these pods are both “lounge hangout and lookout point.”

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Osdorp Oever / Carve

Check out Carve’s other projects.

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