A new role for Landscape Architecture

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Like many professions, medicine being an example, landscape architecture is beginning to subdivide into specializations informed by empirical evidence.

The design and management of children’s outdoor environments is one such area of practice, with evidence drawn from many disciplines, including landscape architecture itself. A burgeoning mountain of evidence supports the importance of kids spending time outdoors – and the negative consequences of not doing so. For the most recent, compelling research-based statement, read Dr. Frances Ming Kuo’s 2010 monograph sponsored by the National Recreation and Park Association. (click to download Kuo's monograph).

All kids need a daily dose of Vitamin G (for “green”), she urges.

How are these green, young lives going to happen when so many spaces used by children are devoid of Vitamin G or almost so?

This is certainly the case for the outdoor spaces of hundreds of thousands of childcare centers and schools where millions of children are required to spend their days. Usually, these sites are cleared for construction, the budget is expended on the building, and the outdoor site remains an eco-disaster.

The situation is so commonplace that it is taken for granted. Typically, the municipality requires tree planting to create a buffer outside fence lines and in the parking lot but never on the ground actually occupied by children.

Wise stewardship of the land is a core value of landscape architects, so it would help if they were actively involved in helping to create stewardship policy in this arena of micro-eco disasters, which could then become eco-restoration sites.

Landscape architects are already involved in large-scale urban land restoration and rejuvenation, working with communities to convert “brown” and “grey” fields to productive social and economic use. Such sites tend to be large, abandoned waterfronts, former, manufacturing sites, and primary industry locations.

Now consider that North Carolina alone has almost 5,000 licensed childcare or child development centers; with an average use area of just under 10,000 sqft (calculated on the basis of 60 that have served as NLI research and/or restoration design sites). Scaled up, the total across North Carolina is approximately 1,000 acres of potential social/eco-restoration area. This is land (degraded ecologically, typically), occupied by young children five days a week almost year round. For many children, this almost equals the number of hours in the rest of their primary / secondary schooling. Now multiply those land measures across the country, now add school sites, now add public playgrounds and parkland needing increased play value, and greenways and trails designed with children in mind, and neighborhood streets for safe travel by children, and ….. You get the idea. The built environment needing re-design and eco-restoration for child friendliness is thousands of acres.

Here is a huge opportunity to provide necessary spaces for children to engage with the wondrous, playful attributes of nature, to help them become the new biophilic vanguard of society who will more likely vote for the continuing health of our planet.

Schools and childcare are policy-sensitive systems driven by state level regulation, which makes them a perfect fit for the attention of state chapters of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). As in many other lobbying and legislative efforts, chapters would find passionate allies concerned about children’s deteriorating health, reduced time outdoors, and lack of contact with nature.

At NLI, we believe that landscape architects are a crucial partner in creating new types of landscapes to support active, outdoor lifestyles in childhood. We urge state chapters to get on board, to refocus Olmsted’s vision of landscape architecture as a public health intervention, and to appoint representatives to the new Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) hosted by ASLA.

To non-landscape architect readers, realize you have potential community allies that can help you achieve Rachel Carson’s vision of all children developing a fulfilling, lifelong relationship with nature.