We’ve all read the headlines and seen the statistics. Childhood obesity is on the increase, while time spent outdoors is on the decline. As a society we know that we need to reverse this trend, and that societal norms are working against us. Children are spending less time outside for many reasons, including competition from electronic devices, increased after-school activities, little or no recess during the school day, limited access to green spaces, and concerns over safety in public and open spaces.  In addition, parents and adults may be embarrassed about their own lack of knowledge of and experience with nature; as a result they may not encourage children to get outdoors.  Educating both children and adults about nature and natural systems enables everyone to feel more comfortable in outdoor spaces.

Organizations like the Texas Parks and Wildlife are on the right path with initiatives like the Texas Outdoor Family Program, a workshop aimed at educating families about everything they need to know to have a successful camping experience. As planners and designers, we also have an obligation to do our part in reversing the trend. So, what can planning and design professionals do to encourage more outdoor exploration?  For starters, we can advocate for both programmed and unprogrammed spaces, promote the use of interpretive signage, and simply lead by example – get outdoors in our own communities.


Programmed and Unprogrammed Spaces

Programmed spaces are intended for specific activities and include places like play fields, trails, playscapes, and picnic and/or gathering areas.  People enjoy these spaces because they are easily accessible, visible, and safe.  These park elements are usually located near a road or parking lot and feel secure because users can see and be seen by others.  In addition to a prominent location, these programmed areas typically have mowed lawns and landscaping that is waist-high or lower, allowing adults to supervise children and providing safety through visibility.

Unprogrammed spaces are often open spaces or natural areas that are left undisturbed or may have minimal enhancements.  Typical enhancements include clearing vegetation for paths, incorporating plantings that provide food and shelter for wildlife, improving an existing water source, or capturing water for wildlife use.  These areas may be perceived as less safe because of limited visibility for supervision and security.  On the other hand, natural areas provide the opportunity for exploration and discovery that are completely defined by the user and unlike what is experienced in a programmed setting.  When asked what kind of outdoor experience or space teens would like to see in parks, one high school student replied, “someplace where I can go and feel like no one else has ever been…where I can try to catch a snake by myself or with a friend.”

Both types of spaces allow for exploration and discovery and should be included in public open space and parks.  A good example of a park that incorporates both elements is the Oso Bay Nature Preserve and Learning Center in Corpus Christi. This park is planned for minimal improvements to the nature preserve portion of the site, allowing opportunities for park visitors to define their own experience. At the same time, the park will offer highly programmed spaces such as a learning center with classrooms, amphitheater, outdoor gardens, and demonstration pond. These programmed spaces have been confined to one area of the site in order to minimize disturbance of the preserve.


Interpretive Signs

There are many different types of interpretive signs, but the ones RVi uses most frequently are wayfinding and educational signs. Wayfinding signs orient users to their location on the site and help identify potential destinations of interest.  These signs may take the form of physical signs or handheld trail maps – or they can even take wayfinding a step further through an interactive phone app. Wayfinding phone apps have the potential to facilitate user interaction – both offering information and allowing visitors to upload pictures or comments about their own experiences in the space.

Educational signs serve a slightly different purpose in that they provide information in a format that speaks to a targeted age group or groups, encourage visitors to learn more, and inspire users to take action.  For instance, educational signs at the Falcon Pointe Sustainability Park in Pflugerville educate visitors about sustainability in the residential environment. One such sign describes how a water cistern works to capture rainwater for use with irrigation, and another identifies plants that require low water and low maintenance so residents and visitors may incorporate those plants into their own yards.  Interpretive signs can inform users of all ages about the location and spaces they are in, increase knowledge of natural elements, and encourage them to learn more.


Lead by Example – Get Outdoors!

In a previous blog entry, RVi Vice President Barbara Austin identified some of the key benefits of being outside, including health, self-esteem, stress reduction, and improved creativity and problem-solving.   People of all ages can experience these benefits.  If you enjoyed playing outside as kid, be sure to share your experiences with others in the community.  You can encourage children by playing outside together with friends and family, working with your community to organize an outdoor clean-up or workday, or volunteering with entities like the local school district, scout groups, or organizations like the National Wildlife Federation.   Let members of your community see you exploring outside.  At RVi, we try to set a good example by participating in community events like It’s My Park Day and taking our offices out on project site visits as often as possible.

As planners and designers, it is in our job description to create a variety of outdoor spaces. As professionals, we must also take that opportunity and use it to encourage people of all ages to play and explore outdoors. And since we can all benefit from improved health and mental welfare, we must lead by example – and get outside!