Walden Athletic Complex plaza / Eberly & Associates

Walden Athletic Complex plaza / Eberly & Associates

The Saving Grace of Outdoor Space

By Curt Jackson

This article originally appeared in Design Equilibrium 2021, released March 2021.

Remember your crowded office? Happy hours, classrooms, and “normal” times are a distant memory. COVID-19 isn’t eliminating your office or university, but it is changing the way they are designed. More specifically, the pandemic is changing how people can congregate safely. Recent Centers for Disease Control guidelines recommend hosting large gatherings outdoors. Still, events must implement physical distancing. Due to COVID-19, outdoor space is essential, but these valuable spaces are often reduced, eliminated, or a complete afterthought in the design process. Landscape architects see this pandemic as a call to action. Now is the time to reinforce the value outdoor space brings to the community’s overall health and its benefits for the built environment.

Access to outdoor environments has a direct effect on our public health. Fresh air, places to walk, play, and exercise benefit both mental and physical wellbeing. A renewed focus on outdoor space had a similar revival during and after the cholera epidemic of 1832. The first landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, designed New York City’s Central Park as the “lungs of the city” following his son’s death from the disease. Its design is vital to New York’s overall sanitation and adds green space.

COVID-19 should prompt today’s designers to consider outdoor space and public health together. Separating places to run, walk, bike, and exercise away from urban pollution is an easy solution to bolster the surrounding region’s overall health. While creating space for exercise can be incredibly difficult in a dense city, urban infill and pocket parks are excellent opportunities to squeeze valuable outdoor space. One example is the Walden Athletic Complex, located along Freedom Parkway in Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood. Found on the long-vacant Walden Middle School Site, the Atlanta Public School facility boasts a state-of-the-art multipurpose turf field, regulation baseball/softball field, and concessions facilities for athletes. After opening in 2018, intermural soccer teams and the community at large now use the site. Infill projects offer public and private versatility that can significantly benefit communities, providing urban escapes that get people outside and moving.

Walden Athletic Complex multi-use field

Walden Athletic Complex multi-use field / Eberly & Associates

“Large gatherings,” an amorphous term, is one of the most significant challenges posed by the pandemic. As such, large parks and open spaces will see a resurgence. Not just parks the size of Atlanta’s Piedmont Park or New York’s Central Park, but projects that span across regions. The BeltLine is Atlanta’s groundbreaking regional trail and transit system paving Atlanta’s way into the 21st Century. The success of regional projects like the BeltLine inspired more communities and elected officials to champion similar efforts. Construction is already underway at Atlanta’s new 280-acre Westside Park. Once finished, the park will dwarf Piedmont Park’s 185 acres. Chattahoochee RiverLands is another project developing a regional multimodal trail system, stretching along a 125-mile run of the river and crossing through multiple counties, municipalities, and neighborhoods. These regional plans will create the connections and access to the outdoors that communities desperately need. The people are saying (and showing) that they need to be outside. Throughout the pandemic, Piedmont Park and the BeltLine remained incredibly busy and perhaps too crowded. Responding at a regional level is imperative, but implementation can take years or decades. It is equally essential to develop smaller-scale, easily implemented, versatile outdoor features to place into a site.

One adaptable site feature that speaks to the COVID and post-COVID environment is an amphitheater. It easily meets the criteria on a COVID prevention design checklist as a large gathering space that can distance users while outdoors. Specific design considerations like the scale are important, especially for seating layouts. Designers can configure the seating to accommodate a single user, couples, or larger groups depending on the use or performance. These groupings can be visually separated by graphics or physically separated by contrasting materials. The design can offset rows of seats six feet or more for access and physical distancing if needed and change depending on social restrictions.

The demand for outdoor classrooms also saw a resurgence during the pandemic. When designing, implementing a specific area for students and another for the educator creates a spatial division for COVID prevention. Campuses can also achieve infill by retrofitting a steep slope or unused outdoor space. Large or small, the benefits of outdoor classrooms are endless and create a pandemic-proof learning environment.

Also read “Designing Equal Access to Atlanta’s Great Urban Spaces” by Desmond Johnson

Walden Athletic Complex multi-use field

Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College Fine Arts Building / Eberly & Associates

A nontraditional amphitheater can also provide COVID retrofitting versatility. The Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College’s newly constructed Fine Arts Building incorporated a phased plan for an outdoor performance space with a simple yet impactful space-defining layout. A two-foot-wide cast stone paving band forms a circle, flush with the flat South Georgia terrain, defining the formal space. The performance space within the paved band is an open lawn that users can subdivide infinitely. When not being utilized as a performance space, amphitheaters can adapt into lounging, exercise, or other exciting uses. This level of multifunctionality tears down barriers between an artist, art, architecture, and outdoor play.

Entries, courtyards, and pocket parks all provide value to design clients and the community and are even more critical in a post-COVID environment. A great example of an efficient small-scale pocket park is the bosque along the BeltLine at 725 Ponce. The bosque consists of nine large, concrete raised planters, each with an individual seating ledge. These planters incorporate multiple layers of spatial design to allow users to properly physical distance. Planters are situated more than six feet apart, allowing for circulation and seating.

Additionally, each seat orientation is rotated or mirrored, increasing the space between people and creating a spatial bubble. No two seats are directly next to each other. The design randomization provides interest and is a powerful COVID prevention feature. The design reinforces distance and separation in a tight space, even along the city’s busiest pedestrian transit corridor.

Walden Athletic Complex multi-use field

725 Ponce bosque / Sarah Doria

Design can also retrofit COVID-preventing outdoor spaces and features into existing buildings or new developments. The prototypical central courtyard days are fading, and now dynamic outdoor space is carving out room on each building level. Providing usable space to distance outside on upper building levels is becoming the standard. Green roofs are an incredibly valuable outdoor feature to incorporate. These can be retrofitted onto existing and proposed buildings and actively combat climate change by mitigating the heat island effect, establishing important pollinators, collecting and reusing stormwater, and reestablishing native plantings. Green roofs contribute to disease prevention and climate resiliency.

Expansive greenspace integration has been successful in developments like Star Metals Offices in West Midtown. Each floor has a sustainable water harvesting green roof and multiple hardscape terraces. Many tenants have private terraces, allowing them to escape the office, get fresh air, hold meetings and events without direct access to a large courtyard. Landscape architects, planners, and designers should consider green roofs thoroughly and early during the planning process.

Walden Athletic Complex multi-use field

725 Ponce bike corral / Sarah Doria

Building entrances, including front entry steps, terraces, and walkways, are another outdoor environment that can adapt to pandemics. Upgrading an access point can add tremendous value to a development. Stairs and entrances can perform double duty as small amphitheaters or platform seating. Walkways can grow into small plaza space for socially distanced gatherings. The entry can be a collaborative effort to create transformative, site-specific spaces for its users. Dynamic entrances moving away from singular programmed uses will be some of the most successful, cost-effective, post-COVID outdoor spaces.

Landscape architects recognize that every outdoor space or feature can address issues generated by COVID. It is imperative to include landscape architects on project teams. Now more than ever, every site needs a dynamic team to manage and develop solutions for future health crises thoughtfully. A collaborative effort provides the unique, site-specific design responses that give value to any development or space. Avoid copy-and-paste designs from previous projects and create new, collaborative solutions. Before, during, and after the pandemic, public representatives will be collaborating much more often with landscape architects, urban designers, planners, scientists, and artists to solve future planning issues. The spaces and solutions here only scratch the surface of design in our “new normal.” The opportunities for collaboration, increasing value, and public health are endless.

Greater access to outdoor space is a foundation for healthy communities and creating economic value on a large scale. These results come from both small-scale spaces like entrances and large regional transit corridors. Accessible, public outdoor space and transitional public-private spaces are crucial for those that do not have equal access to the outdoors. As designers, it is worth remembering to be stewards of public health and welfare, and fight hard to show it.

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