Landscape architecture is both an art and a science. As designers of the public realm, we are artistic, in that we look for creative solutions to design better open spaces, relying on aesthetic choices to engage visitors to the places we create. Landscape architects are also scientific, as we assess the biological, geologic, and cultural makeup of environments through analyzing and integrating information from soil tests, hydrologic processes, materials science, and more into our design decisions.
This scientific approach to design can also be applied to how the places we create can support community health outcomes through how site users interact with the built environment both consciously and unconsciously. This is primarily achieved by tapping into publicly accessible medical research that informs how landscape design can improve health.
The design of public spaces, and how they affect health, is also inherently a political process. Some examples of how political processes affect design is seen in the following examples:
History has shown that the result of these political processes often have unfair health consequences for low-income and minority communities. These differences are broad, but are often seen in the following outcomes:
With the acknowledgement that these outcomes are a result of environmental and spatial racism, landscape architects are tasked with how to utilize both science-based and political practices to improve community health. If landscape architects think about our practice as science-based and political, we must harness the power of both processes to improve health outcomes. We do this in two ways – science-based, data-driven design processes and democratic design processes that integrate the power of equitable community engagement and consensus building into the places we design.
There are several types of data-driven design processes:
1 | Integrating spatial data analysis and participatory design processes to identify park locations and design features that will have the greatest impact on community health.
Pasadena is a majority minority/Latinx community with a high proportion of residents who are socioeconomically vulnerable; furthermore, only 54% of the population lives within a 10-minute walk from a park. After providing an evaluation of current conditions of Pasadena parks and trails, more than 50 datasets were selected and weighted to build an equity map using a suitability analysis that stacked environmental and socioeconomic vulnerability, community health, and park access indices.
Additionally, we integrated a robust design process that included an Advisory Committee, a community workshop, interviews/focus groups, speak outs and other events to reach more than 700 people and receive a total of 1,307 documented responses. With the priorities from the suitability analysis, the results of community engagement, and the park assessment scores, we were able to create a plan that identified the highest priority investments to ensure that Pasadena thrives through making its parks healthy, welcoming, and accessible to all.
2 | Pairing measurable and experiential participatory design processes.
In this area of South Austin, 51% of the population is non-white, the area is considered to be socioeconomically vulnerable with high levels of linguistic isolation and refugees, and there are high rates of heart disease and poor mental health. It is also prone to flooding every five to 10 years; so much so that a home buyout program was prompted, and now vacant lots sit where there were once residential homes. In addition to the vacant lots, Central Williamson Creek is bordered by about 58 acres of undeveloped parkland.
We began this project by jumping into the participatory design process’ first phase: experiential. We conducted qualitative research including conversation toolkits, creek stomps and storytelling. Once we obtained the rich data and impressions from the community, we had measurable quantitative outcomes which were “idea card” voting and Inaturalist Maps. From this we created the goals for this project based on engagement. we would create 1. A restored, biodiverse greenway; 2. A community-centered greenway; 3. An accessible and visible greenway; 4. An active and connected greenway.
The Plan we created is the epitome of what a democratic process would look like, as it centers around what the community members wanted for themselves. Our final product promotes vital ecological benefits – flood control, habitat for wildlife, carbon sequestration, and more – while providing opportunities to develop ways that residents can connect with nature and use the green spaces for recreation, relaxation, and social gathering.
3 | Utilizing scientific literature to create evidence-based design strategies and performing goal audits throughout the design process.
Austin State Hospital (ASH) is an inpatient psychiatric hospital in Austin, Texas. The goal of this project was to establish the landscape of the ASH Brain Health Campus as a therapeutic environment and key component of brain health care. The design process integrated four steps. First, the design team established the scientific underpinnings of therapeutic landscapes by performing an in-depth analysis of publicly available health research that helped us understand the connection between the built environment, landscapes, and mental well-being.
Then, the design team developed project goals based on these recommendations and then made design recommendations based on the latest research on improving physical and mental outcomes in psychiatric facilities.
Recommendation 1: Create exercise opportunities for patients, such as exercise stations, sports courts, yoga, etc.
Supporting Evidence: Physical movement in a natural setting, such as walking or playing sports, improves immune system response and boosts stress resistance. The same effect is not seen when exercising in an indoor environment.
Recommendation 2: Provide seating and gathering areas that encourage patients to converse, support, and counsel one another.
Supporting Evidence: Strong social connections have been shown to reduce depression and improve brain health outcomes.
Finally, throughout the design process, the design team audited the project to ensure that the design decisions continued to support ideal outcomes for psychiatric health throughout the lifespan of the design process.
You can view the final Pasadena Healthy Parks Plan here, and the final Central Williamson Creek Greenway Vision Plan here.