Moving from inaction to IN Action a look at designing natural environments

Rob Voigt and Adam Bienenstock shared some great insight on natural environmental design for kids, and kids at heart in their presentation Moving from inaction to IN Action. 

Highlights from Rob Voigt’s presentation on creating engaging environments and supporting active transportation

Our current environment is:

  • Obesogenic
  • Unsustainable
  • Under performing financially

This is evident in the way we refer to mall sections as neighbourhoods, design new buildings without an eye to active transport (no bike racks), value security over fun. All these things disconnect us from being active within our own communities. In creating new spaces in this context there is an ethical challenge for designers who sell “nature” as part of urban settings when in reality it is an afterthought at best. A tree in a parking lot is not a natural environment. "We can do better” than to cartoon our environment says Voight

if we want to encourage walking and active transport, and spending time in nature then we need environments that are interesting and inspiring. Spaces that engage all the senses and are fun to be in. Elements like bike racks and benches, thoughtful design and chances to interact with the natural environment are details that have big impact.

In short our environments need to be SAFE:

  • Safe & sustainable
  • Accessible & attractive
  • Functional
  • Efficient & effective

And to get these environments our decision-makers need to understand that SAFE spaces can have positive impacts on:

  • Economic development
  • Education
  • Traffic congestion
  • Costs to municipalities
  • Community health
  • Property values

For an example of Rob’s vision of good urban planning take a look at the Town of Collingwood Urban Design Manual. The manual was so well-received, it was passed into by-law and is now a requirement for new developments.

Highlights from Adam Bienenstock's presentation on creating natural play environments.

The average roam rate for today’s kids is line of site, maxing out at somewhere around 350 yards. If we no longer feel comfortable letting kids wander freely we need to put added effort into places that let them experience true nature in other ways. The retrofit of false nature to create “natural” playgrounds can easily be replaced with boulders, logs, trees and woody shrubs.

Nature intervention not only encourages more activity in kids that tend to be sedentary, but also offers a calming oasis for those kids that get enough activity. If you offer kids a natural environment, they will intuitively take from it what they need. The less prescriptive a space, the better these spaces are, and "there is nothing less prescriptive than nature"; says Bienenstock.

In referring to the risks associated with natural play environments, Bienenstock asks that before we say no to an idea because of potential risk, look for actual evidence of that risk and conduct risk/benefit analysis instead of relying on risk assessments that may shut down opportunities for kids to engage physically and cognitively. "Ask if, in taking away risk, you are stifling the activity?" 

More presentation gems:

  • 25% shade is needed in outdoor spaces if you expect people to spend time there.
  • A natural space needs to engage all the senses. “If you want a kid to love trees, stick a tap in it”.
  • Sense of place is important so add elements from your geographic area to your play spaces (the 100 mile rule).
  • Sense of wonder is hard to do poorly inside, but is easily achieved outdoors – let kids see the world is bigger than them.
  • When you encourage a community build of a space instead of creating it in isolation, vandalism drops significantly: Community-created art is a great example of engaging community in a build.