The Great Outdoors

When I was a child, my grandfather told stories of what happened to naughty children.  “A great big hoot owl will swoop down from the top of the big old pine tree, and he’ll snatch you up in his great claws and carry you way up to his nest at the top of the tree.  He’ll settle you down next to all the other lil’ baby hoot owls and feed you worms.  And we’ll never find you, ‘cause you can scream and scream but that ol’ hoot owl will just think you’re hungry, and keep fillin’ your beak with worms ‘til one day, you’ll turn into a hoot owl.”  This story was immeasurably improved by his raspy delivery on the porch at nighttime, creaking in the metal rocker.  We were protected from this fate, and by all of the unknown creatures of the Mississippinightwoods, by only a thin mesh of wire screening, a few sticks of wood frame.  It gave my little sister and I chills, and while we visited, we were very, very good.
The terrors of being left outside at night were real to us, having experienced the feeling, although often at close range to safety.  But not many children today get as close to nature as we did in those southern summers, playing in the barn, the lake, the field; only excluded from the limits of my grandmother’s garden.  Children certainly aren’t permitted out alone, at night, beyond the safety of their backyard, if even there.  The majority of children are supervised when they play; 52% are supervised even in the garden. In natural places, this rises to over 80%, even in daytime.
The forest we feared gave us turpentine, lumber, and paper.  It also gave my grandfather and uncles a living, with jobs in the sawmill, construction, boatbuilding, farming and timber; it bestowed a subsistence through deer and turkey and pecans in the fall, figs and berries in the summer, and firewood all year round.  Fear of the forest recedes with familiarity, but this also inspires new concerns for what may be lost with the forest: for children, this includes a sense of capability and independence.  For medicine, the possibility of new cures from endangered species, and a weapon in the fight against obesity and diabetes.  For ecological balance, the essential predators and top-level species that check the population of prey and invasive species that can explode without their vigilance.  And for the climate, the carbon sequestration that is necessary to mitigate climate change.
To suggest that architecture has a role in encouraging people to spend more time outdoors seems counterintuitive.  And yet, good design can encourage interaction between inside and outside.  A trellis brings nature close for sensory pleasure; a glasshouse is one step toward a garden; a window an invitation to step beyond the frame.  Without architecture, the “great outdoors” becomes a threat.  In cooperation, the outside becomes a respite, a relief necessary for our mental health and regeneration.
What time is spent indoors should also promote health.  In the United States, this is 87% of our lives – about 69% within our residences, and 18% in work, school, or leisure.  Statistics in other countries are not wildly different.  With such a radical inversion in the location of human activity over the last two centuries, indoor air quality becomes much more important.  Architecture continues to pursue improvements such as reducing volatile organic compounds, and improving particle filtration, so as to reduce allergies and asthma for occupants.
Without nature, the real and unexpected, the living and unpredictable, shall we enjoy only conservatories filled with artifice, and survive like the characters of science fiction, with our only nature a covered roof garden populated with mechanized animals? Architecture preserves natural habitats through wise resource use, reclamation, rapidly renewable materials, and efficient structures.  And if, as work and school and media become less aligned with the circadian rhythms as also predicted in sci-fi, the artifice of aural and visual stimulation will do little to fulfill our sensory needs.  Nature, even at nighttime, supplies the experience of wind, the sounds of water’s movement, the call of birds and the rustle of leaves.
As cities become more dense, wild lands must be preserved through conservation.  Increasingly small patches of nature must rally to fight air pollution, and promote exercise, to counteract obesity and diseases such as diabetes.  The result of access to nature is not only the restoration of nature, but a human renaissance as well.
As schools become more protective of their students, will children forever lose recess outdoors, and be confined to gymnasia and lunch halls?  If lessons from the best school system in the world are taken to heart, the answer will be a resounding “No.”  Finland has the fewest class hours of any educational system in the developed world, yet maintains the highest scores in science and reading.  Elementary students get 75 minutes of recess each day, compared to 27 minutes in the United States.  A reporter for The New Republic writes, “While observing recess outside the Kallahti Comprehensive School on the eastern edge of Helsinki on a chilly day in April 2009, I asked Principal Timo Heikkinen if students go out when it’s very cold. Heikkinen said they do. I then asked Heikkinen if they go out when it’s very, very cold. Heikkinen smiled and said, ‘If minus 15 [Celsius] and windy, maybe not, but otherwise, yes. The children can’t learn if they don’t play. The children must play.’”
In rain and sunshine, nature provides essential human needs; in cold and wind it challenges our survival.  Architecture developed strategies to resist these threats, perhaps too well.  Now, the challenge is to create buildings without air infiltration which invite the breezes, structures immobile against floods which can later be moved to safer elevations, spaces immune to the sun’s daily heat gain but retain views of nature and the city surrounding us.  Nature deficit is not limited to the Western World, and is even noted in cities such as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  It is time for children to return to the wild, for architecture to halt the march across unspoiled land, and for designers to create a new interaction between building and the world outside. These measures will ensure not only the potential for ecological balance, but also that tales of the dark and spooky forest are not confined to the past.

Report to Natural England on Childhood and Nature: a Survey on Changing Relationships with Nature Across Generations:
Samuel E. Abrams, “The Children Must Play.”  The New Republic, January 28, 2011.