A New Role for Landscape Architecture

About the Author

Robin Moore is a designer and design researcher, specializing in child and family urban environments that support healthy human development, informal play, and non-formal education, especially through children’s exposure to nature. Moore is professor of Landscape Architecture and Director of the Natural Learning Initiative, North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

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.

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.

Case Study: Blanchie Carter Discovery Park

BEFORE: Hot, dusty, sandburr-covered desert

AFTER: Play equipment and grove of trees planted within

AFTER: Running track with shade trees

Read more about Blanchie Carter Discovery Park

Photos and Graphics: Natural Learning Initiative

Read Richard Louv’s blog: True Green: 21 Ways to Plant a City


  1. I heartily endorse Robin’s call to Landscape Architects in this article, but from my perspective, I’d like to offer an important qualification. Children’s frequent and deep use of public spaces should be the primary goal. I agree that the other goal Robin mentions here, eco-friendliness, often leads to benefits for children, but this is but one means, albeit a very important one, to what should be the primary goal: getting lots of children outside, engaged in deep play.

    So, I can envision public space restorations that somewhat diminish the “green-ness” of a public place, but increase the potential of that place to be a kid hangout. Kids have to win here. It’s not always win-win. I’m not suggesting that we bulldoze forests to create ball fields or skate parks, but I’m merely suggesting that a dual-goal approach isn’t tenable. Yes, maximizing eco-friendliness very often is good for kids, but not always. Kids should come first.

    I’ll give an example. Three years ago, I transformed the front yard of my house from a sleep suburban front yard to a vibrant kid hangout. Kids never played there before. Now, outside of school time, kids are almost playing there. In making this transformation, I didn’t destroy big swaths of greenery, but I did replace permeable pavers on our driveway with less eco-friendly smooth concrete. Now, kids can scooter, skateboard, rollerblade, bike, play basketball, and draw with sidewalk chalk on our driveway. That was a step back eco-wise, but a *huge* win for our kids.

    Here are three articles about this renovation and our use of our driveway:

    Our Front Yard Family Room

    A Neighborhood Map on Our Driveway

    Huntopoly: A New Neighborhood Bonding Game

    How I Didn’t Teach My Three-Year-Old Son to Ride His Bike Without Training Wheels

  2. Robin’s is a great approach – Landscapes as part of our human habitats rather than as “decoration” to the works of “Starchitects”.

    Colleagues of mine (Steve Ord) at Parks Victoria in Melbourne have done a great job of linking access to natural open space (parks) to significant reductions in lifestyle based diseases such as depression and overweight.

    As someone with what some in the US regard as a weird background (Architecture, Public Health, System Dynamics and Business Strategy), I think there is a real need to reconnect our species with the natural world of which we are all a part. The benefits to our health and well being, our consumption of energy, our nutrition (and thus our health) and our general level of fitness and resistance to disease are all significant benefits that more policy-makers and economists need to take more seriously then they do.

    Children can be our most powerful ambassadors in this regard if they are given the opportunity to play and experience the natural world around them. This is particularly so in my region – the greater Phoenix metro area, situated as it is in the Sonoran Desert. We have seen 30+ years of runaway sprawl courtesy of developers who remain it seems in love with “planned communities”. And the results and all to plain for everyone to see. Bland, style-du-jour suburban tracts, streets that go nowhere and planning regulations all designed to the convenience of automobiles and their drivers.

    There has to be another way – and the creation of accessible open space in and around our urban centers is a vital step forward for our species.

    Phil Allsopp, RIBA, FRSA
    Shaping Footprints Inc.,
    Scottsdale, AZ, USA

  3. sweet work, love your design, suits the blog well 🙂


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