Free Range Neighborhoods – Designing Everyday Natural Places to Motivate Outdoor Play in a Risk Averse Society

People are becoming more aware of their surroundings and re-recognizing the value that nature brings to one’s health and well-being. People want to be close to parks, to live in communities to which they contribute, and which give back to them. “Being close to parks” is one of the most important criteria for many of my buyer clients …

Remember the recent study about how cities hurt our brains?

“The mind is a limited machine,”says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. “And we’re beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations.”

One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the urban roil.

cVillain embedded the study in their post.

Omninerd says it better than I could …

The key, then, is to find ways to mitigate the psychological damage of the metropolis while still preserving its unique benefits. One solution to this problem is better urban planning—more green space. Not just the savannah-like parks we consistently build, but ones that involve multiple aspects of nature; from towering oaks to ivy-like ground cover and ponds teeming with life from the microscopic to the leaping bass chasing gizzard shad for lunch. Then, we humans must take advantage of these places to relax and recharge.

This seems to be just the sort of thing that Charlottesville would embrace. You can register for the event here.

Disclosure: What follows after the jump is an invitation/advertisement to a symposium that is being put together by a friend. I think that this is a very pertinent event, particularly in today’s society.

Richard J. Dolesh

Richard Dolesh is the Senior Director of Public Policy for the National Recreation and Park Association in Washington, D.C.

The Role of Public Parks in Connecting Children and Families to Nature
Public parks play a critical role in providing the places where children and families can connect with nature. Across the nation, public park and recreation agencies are coming up with creative and interesting solutions to providing safe access, interpretive and educational programs, natural playscapes, and exciting interesting ways that kids can discover and enjoy nature. But at the same time, public park agencies are on the front lines of grappling with risk management issues, liability concerns, public safety concerns and a lack of staff and budget to meet public expectations.

Rich will provide an overview of what is happening across the country in public park and recreation agencies, and share his perspective of what the challenges-and the potential–for public parks in connecting kids to nature

Tim Beatley
Timothy Beatley is Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, where he has taught for the last eighteen years.

Biophilic Cities: Strategies for Re-inviting Nature into Our Lives and Communities

Beatley will describe steps communities and cities can take to re-integrate and rediscover the nature in and around them, and to create conditions where adults and children alike have daily contact with outdoor nature. From vertical green gardens to stream daylighting to community forests and city farms, Beatley will describe innovative green practice from around the world and what might be applied here in Charlottesville. Beatley will also discuss work on his forthcoming documentary the Nature of Cities, and will premiere a 12-minute trailer for the film.

Nilda Cosco
Nilda Cosco, PhD, Research Associate Professor and Education Specialist, the Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design, North Carolina State University.

The “purple thing” and other stories
Spontaneous interaction with the living environment encourages curiosity, and the desire to know about plants, animals, and natural processes. Explorations improve cooperation, strategic thinking, language, and stimulate the naturalistic intelligence. Diverse environments accommodate the needs of different learning abilities. This presentation will feature play sequences observed in naturalized play areas.

Tim Gill
Tim Gill, Writer and consultant, MA Philosophy, London University

What if…?
Children, public space and risk

Children across the developed world are leading ever more constrained and supervised lives. As a result too many are unfit, unhappy and disconnected from the people and places around them.

There is a small but growing movement to reshape neighbourhoods and create more child-friendly communities. But one of the biggest barriers to progress is a pervasive yet rarely examined climate of fear. The question ‘what if…?’ can paralyse parents, educators, designers and policy makers. The mere suggestion of the threat of litigation can kill off creativity and innovation, and lead all concerned to revert to the ‘safest’ option.

Drawing on his extensive experience from the UK, and his worldwide perspective, Tim will explore how we can overcome our anxieties, face up to the lawyers and build places that give children the freedom to learn through living.

Robin Moore
Robin Moore, Dipl.Arch, MCP, Professor of Landscape Architecture
Director, Natural Learning Initiative, North Carolina State University.

Naturalizing Everyday Spaces for Healthy Childhoods – by Design

Moore will briefly review scientific findings that support the importance of outdoor play in natural surroundings for children, particularly in early and middle childhood. He will focus on design strategies for integrating nature into the places where children spend daily time: childcare centers, schools, neighborhood parks, and residential neighborhoods. The role of the new profession of playwork will be introduced. Case studies, including community destinations such as children’s museums, zoos, and botanical gardens, will demonstrate how designed natural settings can provide a shared sense of community and source of social capital.

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  1. Daniel Nairn January 22, 2009 at 08:07

    Nothing wrong with a little advertising, especially when it’s for such an interesting event as this one. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. Jim Duncan January 22, 2009 at 17:44

    Thanks, Daniel – I’m hoping that more people find out about it – it should be a very interesting day.

  3. Lenore Skenazy February 4, 2009 at 21:04

    This sounds great! Please keep me posted. As the founder of Free Range Kids (, I am so in favor of this, I can’t wait till it becomes the norm again! Love to hear how it goes! And I’m sure you’ve heard of the playborhood people out in northern California. Same great idea! Once some kids come out and play, others join them and a neighborhood becomes a neighborhood again, insteat of just a bunch of caves with flat screen tvs.
    — Lenore


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