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The Evolution of Outdoor Living Spaces: A Human-Centered Approach Post-COVID

February 26, 2024

Donna M. Skolnick

Donna M. Skolnick


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The Role of Outdoor Spaces in Promoting Well-being:

“About 80% of the American population lives in cities or urban areas.” (Ulrich, Parsons 1992)1 Ulrich et al. (2020) emphasize the vital role of nature in promoting psychological well-being and stress reduction. As individuals grappled with the challenges of social isolation during the pandemic, outdoor environments provided solace and respite. Kellert (2018) further underscores the importance of biophilic design principles, advocating for seamless integration of natural elements into built environments. By incorporating elements such as natural light, #greenery, and water features,#outdoor living spaces and outdoor kitchens,can enhance cognitive function and emotional well-being.

In their seminal work, Ulrich et al. (2020) delve into the profound impact of nature on psychological well-being and stress reduction. His research helps us to understand the intricate mechanisms through which nature influences human cognition, emotion, and behavior. Drawing upon empirical evidence and theoretical frameworks, the therapeutic potential of natural environments is important to mitigating stress, enhancing mood, and fostering overall well-being. Through an interdisciplinary lens, we look at the diverse pathways by which exposure to nature promotes psychological resilience and offers insights for designing healthier built environments.

Biophilia and the Evolutionary Perspective:

Ulrich et al. (2020) emphasize the concept of biophilia, positing that humans possess an innate affinity for nature rooted in evolutionary adaptations. From ancestral environments characterized by natural landscapes, our species has developed a deep-seated connection to natural elements such as greenery, water, and sunlight. Drawing upon evolutionary psychology and environmental psychology, researchers have discovered the adaptive significance of this biophilic predisposition, which manifests in preferences for natural environments and physiological responses to nature stimuli.

Stress Reduction and Restorative Environments:

One of the central tenets of Ulrich et al.'s (2020) research is the stress-reducing effects of nature exposure, which they attribute to the concept of restorative environments. Natural settings, characterized by elements such as vegetation, water features, and biodiversity, offer respite from the demands of everyday life and facilitate recovery from stress. Drawing upon attention restoration theory and stress reduction theory, researchers have identified several mechanisms through which nature promotes relaxation, including attentional engagement, psychological distance, and biophilic responses.

Enhancing Mood and Emotional Well-being:

In addition to stress reduction, Ulrich et al. (2020) highlight the mood-enhancing effects of nature exposure, which they attribute to the psychological benefits of biophilic engagement. Natural environments evoke positive emotions such as awe, fascination, and tranquility, which contribute to subjective well-being and emotional resilience. Drawing upon affective neuroscience and positive psychology, researchers have shown that neurophysiological mechanisms underlying these mood-enhancing effects, including the release of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin in response to natural stimuli.

Cognitive Restoration and Attentional Renewal:

Ulrich et al. (2020) also emphasize the cognitive benefits of nature exposure, particularly regarding attention restoration and cognitive renewal. Natural environments, characterized by soft fascination and effortless attention, promote cognitive recovery from mental fatigue and enhance cognitive functioning. Cognitive psychology and environmental psychology, researchers have explored the role of nature in fostering attentional restoration, cognitive flexibility, and creativity, offering insights for designing environments that support cognitive well-being. Particurarly since COVID, people like to be outside. This includes eating and cooking outside too.

Implications for Design:

The research by Ulrich et al. (2020) has significant implications for the design of built environments and public health interventions aimed at promoting psychological well-being. Incorporating biophilic elements such as green spaces, natural light, and views of nature into architectural design can enhance the restorative potential of indoor environments and mitigate the negative effects of urbanization. Moreover, urban planning initiatives that prioritize access to nature, such as outdoor kitchens, gardens, and green infrastructure, can promote community well-being and environmental sustainability.

The work by Ulrich et al. (2020) underscores the vital role of nature in promoting psychological well-being and stress reduction. Building upon their research, we see the intricate mechanisms through which nature influences human cognition, emotion, and behavior, offering insights for designing healthier built environments and fostering community well-being. By embracing biophilic design principles and promoting access to nature-rich environments, policymakers, designers, and public health practitioners can harness the therapeutic potential of nature to enhance the quality of life for individuals and communities.

Biophilic design, derived from the term "biophilia" coined by biologist Edward O. Wilson, refers to the incorporation of natural elements and patterns into the built environment to enhance human well-being. This design approach is grounded in the recognition of humans' innate connection to nature and the profound influence of natural environments on our physical, emotional, and cognitive health. Biophilic design principles encompass a range of strategies and interventions aimed at creating environments that evoke the restorative qualities of nature, promote stress reduction, and support overall human flourishing.

Understanding Biophilia:

Biophilia, as defined by Wilson, refers to the instinctive bond between humans and nature that has evolved over millennia of evolutionary adaptation. This innate affinity for nature is rooted in our evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers, where our survival depended on our ability to navigate and thrive in natural landscapes. Biophilic responses, such as awe in the presence of natural beauty, feelings of tranquility in green spaces, and preferences for natural materials and forms, are deeply ingrained in our genetic makeup and influence our perceptions, emotions, and behaviors.

Key Principles of Biophilic Design:

Biophilic design principles encompass a set of guidelines and strategies for incorporating nature-inspired elements into built environments. These principles are informed by empirical research from fields such as environmental psychology, neuroscience, and architecture, which show the cognitive, emotional, and physiological benefits of natural exposure. Key principles of biophilic design include:

  • Connection to Nature: Biophilic design seeks to establish a strong connection between indoor and outdoor spaces, and the natural world, whether through direct views of nature, access to outdoor environments, or the use of natural materials and textures.
  • Natural Light: Maximizing access to natural light not only reduces reliance on artificial lighting but also enhances circadian rhythms, mood, and productivity. Daylighting strategies such as skylights, windows, and light wells create dynamic, visually stimulating environments that mimic the natural variations of daylight.
  • Biomorphic Forms and Patterns: Incorporating organic shapes, patterns, and textures inspired by nature evokes a sense of harmony, balance, and tranquility in built environments. Biomorphic design elements, such as curved lines, fractal patterns, and biomimetic structures, resonate with our innate biophilic responses and promote a sense of connection to the natural world.
  • Prospect and Refuge: Biophilic design seeks to create spaces that offer opportunities for both prospect - expansive views of the surrounding environment - and refuge - enclosed, sheltered spaces that provide a sense of security and privacy. Balancing these two elements fosters a sense of psychological comfort and promotes exploration, relaxation, and social interaction. For example, adding a pergola over an outdoor kitchen, gives the sense of intimacy.
  • Sensory Engagement: Engaging the senses through multisensory experiences, such as the sound of running water, the scent of flowers, or the tactile texture of natural materials, enhances the richness and depth of human experiences in the built environment. By stimulating the senses, biophilic design fosters emotional connections and promotes a sense of presence and immersion in the environment.

Empirical Evidence and Research:

Empirical research from environmental psychology, neuroscience, and public health provides compelling evidence for the benefits of biophilic design on human well-being. Studies have demonstrated that exposure to nature, even in simulated or virtual forms, can reduce stress, improve mood, enhance cognitive function, and promote physical health. For example, research by Ulrich et al. (1984) found that patients with views of nature from their hospital rooms experienced faster recovery times, reduced pain perception, and lower stress levels compared to those with views of built environments.

Similarly, studies on the psychological effects of indoor plants, such as those by Kaplan and Kaplan (1989), have shown that indoor greenery can improve concentration, creativity, and emotional well-being, while also reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Neuroscientific research by Berman et al. (2008) has demonstrated that exposure to natural environments activates areas of the brain associated with relaxation, attention restoration, and emotional regulation, leading to improvements in mood and cognitive performance.

Design Strategies and Applications:

Biophilic design principles are applicable across a range of built environments, including residential, commercial, healthcare, educational, and urban spaces. Design strategies may vary depending on the specific context, function, and user needs of the space. For example, in residential settings, biophilic design may involve incorporating indoor gardens, natural light wells, and outdoor living spaces, and outdoor kitchens,that blur the boundaries between indoor and outdoor environments, having an #outdoorkitchen to get you in the outdoors and enjoying the sunshine.

In commercial and workplace environments, biophilic design strategies such as green walls, living roofs, and biophilic furniture can enhance employee well-being, productivity, and job satisfaction. Educational settings can benefit from biophilic design interventions such as nature-inspired learning environments, outdoor classrooms, and natural playgrounds that promote student engagement, creativity, and academic achievement.

In healthcare facilities, biophilic design principles such as views of nature, healing gardens, and natural materials can contribute to patient comfort, stress reduction, and faster recovery times. Urban environments can incorporate biophilic design elements such as green infrastructure, urban parks, and green streetscapes to promote community health, biodiversity, and ecological resilience.

Challenges and Considerations:

While biophilic design offers numerous benefits for human well-being and environmental sustainability, its implementation may face challenges and considerations related to cost, maintenance, and cultural context. Integrating biophilic design elements into built environments often requires careful planning, collaboration among stakeholders, and consideration of factors such as site conditions, climate, and user preferences.

Additionally, the effectiveness of biophilic design interventions may vary depending on factors such as individual sensitivity to nature, cultural background, and exposure to natural environments. Designers and practitioners must balance the incorporation of biophilic elements with other design priorities and considerations to create holistic, functional, and aesthetically pleasing environments that meet the diverse needs of users.

Biophilic design principles offer a holistic framework for creating environments that enhance human well-being, productivity, and overall quality of life by integrating elements of nature into the built environment. Drawing upon interdisciplinary research from fields such as environmental psychology, neuroscience, and architecture, biophilic design principles encompass strategies for establishing connections to nature, maximizing natural light, optomizing the use of outdoor space for familes and individuals and patterns, and engaging the senses to promote emotional, cognitive, and physiological benefits.

By incorporating biophilic design principles into built environments across various contexts, designers and practitioners can create healthier, more sustainable spaces that foster human-nature connections, support psychological well-being, and enhance the overall quality of life for individuals and communities.

Design Principles in the Post-COVID Era:

The post-COVID era has witnessed a resurgence in demand for outdoor living spaces that prioritize functionality, flexibility, and adaptability. Talen (2014) discusses the concept of "third places" - inclusive, social environments beyond the home and workplace. In response to the pandemic, outdoor spaces have evolved into multifunctional hubs for work, leisure, and social gatherings. Stoyanov (2023) explores the concept of human-centered residential architecture, emphasizing the importance of designing spaces that cater to the diverse needs and preferences of occupants. This shift towards human-centered design principles highlights the intrinsic connection between outdoor environments and overall well-being. We want to spend more time outdoors, including cooking outdoors or just relaxing. Having an outdoor kitchen allows families to spend more time outdoors to enjoy their natural environment.

Adaptive Strategies in Outdoor Design:

Kellert (2008) proposes adaptive strategies for outdoor design that respond to changing environmental conditions and user preferences. In the wake of the pandemic, outdoor living spaces have undergone a renaissance, with a focus on adaptable features such as modular furniture, customizable outdoor kitchens, movable partitions, and integrated technology. These adaptive strategies enable users to customize their outdoor environments based on individual preferences and evolving needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated a fundamental reevaluation of outdoor living spaces, emphasizing the importance of human-centered design principles and adaptive strategies. Drawing upon insights from influential authors such as Ulrich et al., Kellert, Talen, and Stoyanov, we have explored the evolving role of outdoor environments in promoting well-being, social interaction, and resilience in the post-COVID era. As we navigate towards a future defined by uncertainty and change, the design of outdoor living spaces will continue to play a pivotal role in fostering connections, enhancing well-being, and shaping the built environment.

Embrace outdoor living with www.CasaBellaOutdoor.com kitchen islands and cabinetry:

  • Embrace the transformative potential of outdoor living spaces in promoting health and well-being.
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About the Author: Donna Marie Skolnick is the President of CasaBellaOutdoor.com Kitchen Cabinetry

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1 Ulrich, Roger S., and Russ Parsons. Influences of Passive Experiences with Plants on Individual Well-Being and Health. Timber Press, 1992. pp. 93-105.

Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11(3), 201-230.

Ulrich, R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224(4647), 420-421.

Ulrich, R. S., & Parsons, R. (1992). Influences of passive experiences with plants on individual well-being and health. In D. Relf (Ed.), The Role of Horticulture in Human Well-Being and Social Development: A National Symposium (pp. 93-105). Timber Press.

Ulrich, R. S., & Addoms, D. L. (1981). Psychological and recreational benefits of a residential park. Journal of Leisure Research, 13(1), 43-65.

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207-1212.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. Cambridge University Press.