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Mental Health Reflections

On winter and public space

TEXT by Shahrzad Nezafati, OALA and Tracy Cook

Designing outdoor spaces for health and healing has often been a specialized part of the landscape architecture profession. Designing specifically for winter cities with consideration for mental health criteria is an emerging area of research. The results of this research were starting to find their way into the design guidelines of different cities, especially those with longer winters and colder climates, pre-COVID.

Winter Stations at Woodbine Beach. IMAGE/ Mary Crandall / Flickr

When COVID descended on the world, Canadians flocked to their outdoor spaces to maintain healthful, safe social contact. Outdoor spaces became meeting places in all kinds of weather.

Many homes were not designed for the modern live-work arrangement, not to mention families spending their days glued to screens in meetings, work, and school. We all found creative ways of using our outdoor spaces to survive these challenging times. If you were lucky enough to have a private outdoor space, it was likely enhanced with furniture, fire pits, and planters for seasonal colour.

Bare trees in winter covered with string lights. IMAGE/ Jo Sullivan / Flickr

Public open spaces became great options for work, exercise, and social engagement for people without access to private space through all four seasons. This experience was the beginning of new park users with different needs, and a critical question emerged along these new experiences: are our local outdoor spaces and parks designed and programmed with flexibility, mental health criteria, and winter in mind?

Skaters on the trail across the rail bridge in the Arctic Glacier Winter Park at The Forks, Winnipeg. IMAGE/ Lorie Shaull / Flickr

A recent article in the Guardian suggests “visiting green spaces deters mental health drug use. Visits to parks, community gardens and other urban green spaces may lower city dwellers’ use of drugs for anxiety, insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, and asthma. Moreover, the researchers found the positive effects of visiting green spaces were stronger among those reporting the lowest annual household income. The findings correlate with growing evidence that a lack of access to green spaces is linked to various health problems. Access tends to be unequal, with poorer communities having fewer opportunities to be in nature.”

Toronto’s snow covered Sugar Beach in February. IMAGE/ Roozbeh Rokni / Flickr

World Landscape Architecture (WLA) issued an article about how parks are vital to maintaining mental health in March 2020. The article suggests COVID closures (and people’s inability to physically distance) have highlighted the “need for residents to have access to open space within walking distance. Large regional parks often became overcrowded during COVID, highlighting the need for smaller neighbourhood parks and even opportunities to gather on streetscapes—either on widened pedestrian areas with incorporated seating or in outdoor cafes. Residents must have access to green space within walking distance.”

Colourful outdoor furniture in winter. IMAGE/ Sean O’Connor / Flickr

While another winter is now behind us, we want to encourage everyone in the Landscape architecture profession to take this current enthusiasm and appreciation for our parks and outdoor spaces, engage the public in design decisions, and conduct surveys to document how people utilized outdoor space during COVID. How can the design of green spaces improve to assist society in this healing process and plan for more vibrant and practical landscapes throughout communities? This could lead us to quality outdoor spaces designed with criteria and programming focused on mental health in winter cities. Design criteria need to facilitate the creation of safe and comfortable spaces for people
to use daily and year-round.

Unique to our Northern climates in the winter is the need to seek the sun and shelter from the wind—quite the opposite of a warm summer day where you may seek shade and a breeze to keep cool. Going back to the basic inventory, opportunities, and constraints bubble diagrams may help us to identify areas of winter activity vs. summer activity. These sun and shade studies can become particularly helpful when considering outdoor spaces on podiums or adjacent to tall buildings. This is essential when we look into sun exposure, its impact on mental health, and the science behind it.

A skater on the trail in the Arctic Glacier Winter Park at The Forks, Winnipeg. IMAGE/ Lorie Shaull / Flickr

In winter climates, we lose the vibrancy of colour—our trees lose their green leaves, our lawns become brown, and our skies become grey. Colour and its role in creative lighting, paving, and furniture design can be a valuable tool in winter cities that call for more mental health support. There is extensive research on the impacts of colour on human psychology and mood, which should be a permanent part of design criteria in winter cities and approval processes.

Light and heating can play a significant role in making winter spaces accommodating to year-round use. The much shorter days of winter limit the useable time in unlit parks. Park lighting can be playful or utilitarian, temporary or permanent, but adding light to outdoor spaces will allow for extended seasonal use and a sense of safety. Heat is an element that extends our enjoyment of winter parks. Many cultures have a tradition of outdoor fire pits and warming huts—the opportunity for winter festivals and programming which can significantly impact the sense of belonging and inclusion and improve mental health.

Winter Trails. IMAGE/ Lorie Shaull / Flickr

Considering these design criteria when we design outdoor spaces for winter cities at the beginning of the process will offer more opportunities to gather, socialize, and connect to nature—all critical elements for maintaining robust mental health.

This article intends to start a conversation about how COVID naturally created the necessity for designing every outdoor space—not necessarily just hospitals and healing clinics—to help improve mental health, especially in cold climates. We see a significant value in reviewing the basic design criteria with a mental health lens as a starting point for this conversation. The next steps may be looking into design guidelines and approval processes and exploring the best ways to include this essential design consideration in our winter city designs.

Skating at frozen Rideau Canal in Ottawa. IMAGE/ Cynthia Zullo / Flickr

Tracy Cook, BLA, ISA, TRAQ, mom, world traveller, nature lover, (not always in that order). She is a member of the Ground editorial board.

Shahrzad Nezafati, BArch, MLA, OALA, CSLA, is a Landscape Architect with a demonstrated history of working in the landscape architecture and engineering consulting industry. Shahrzad mainly focused on building strong client relations skills by understanding user and client needs and providing the best solutions at the beginning of her career, and is currently focused on sustainable and inclusive design and research. Working on Parks Canada projects and with Indigenous communities with great interest in the environmental aspect of landscape architecture, accessibility, and user experience./