How Access to Outdoor Space Affects Mental Health

Birds Eye View of Renaissance Commons Courtyard

Ever wonder why, when people are overwhelmed, a typical response is to go outside, take a walk, or exercise? Why do we often hear “I need to get some air” associated with stress?

It’s because being outdoors enveloped in the sunshine, surrounded by nature, has a nearly instantaneous positive effect on a person’s well-being.

However, the COVID stay-at-home orders further exposed the inequities of access to housing and housing with outdoor space. While outdoor space is directly correlated to improved mental health, those experiencing houselessness are often not considered in this conversation.

Here’s what we know:

How can architects help residents’ mental health?

As designers of affordable housing, we have a unique opportunity to provide healthy, inspiring spaces for people experiencing financial hardship. Working within our client’s budgets and our county’s codes, private patios or balconies are not always attainable, but, through creative design solutions, usable outdoor spaces almost always are.

How we design an apartment can encourage increased interaction between indoor/outdoor spaces. The 99 PI Podcast Episode, “The Great Indoors,” discusses the topic of permeability between indoor and outdoor environments and how a view of green space alone can improve mental health. Large windows optimized for natural light to flood into a home can increase a person’s connectedness to nature. Windows that open and allow fresh air and ventilation improve physical health by reducing the spread of infection. Having access to these benefits inside a person’s home, while seemingly minor, can drastically impact their perception of life.

Examples of Outdoor Spaces for Affordable Housing

Westlake Christian Terrace West Affordable Apartments

Older Adults Walking In Courtyard

At Westlake Christian Terrace West, an affordable apartment building for older adults, residents made their desire for usable outdoor space known. During community input, residents emphasized the importance of indoor/outdoor living. Designers responded to this need by providing a landscaped courtyard outside of the community room and outdoor exercise equipment on the exterior of the community gym. This permeable layout uses active design, increasing opportunities for daily physical activity for residents.

Renaissance Commons Affordable Apartments

Courtyard Surrounded By Apartments

Renaissance Commons invites residents outside. Oversized windows in every apartment look out to one of three central courtyards. Community rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows with wide doors leading to outdoor seating.

Portland Housing Bureau’s Senior Housing Construction Coordinator Masay Hoshide comments on the benefit of the outdoor spaces at Renaissance Commons affordable apartments. She stated, “The project is looking so fabulous and feels so welcoming to the neighborhood. I’m also thinking that in COVID-19 conditions, the project’s multiple interior common areas and multiple outdoor spaces give residents so many opportunities to spread out and still practice social distancing and’ staying home’. It’s a great, important project for such challenging times.”

Designers arranged the two buildings at Renaissance Commons into C-shapes with centralized community courtyards, allowing more apartments to look out over this green space. Residents at Renaissance Commons have expressed the benefit of their view, sharing that they watch their children play in the courtyard while in their apartments.

Stephens Creek Crossing Affordable Apartments

Playground In Courtyard

Connections to the right or left draw your attention as you make your way from one building to the next at Stephens Creek Crossing, creating an experience that interacts with the interweaving interior community rooms and outdoor courtyards. A large community garden is filled with flowers and crops at the campus edge. In the summer of 2021, a long-term resident told MWA, “My mom spends hours in the garden every day. We have a busy household, and this is where she comes to destress. We’re so thankful it’s here.”

Community Garden

Here’s what we’ve learned:

In times of immense stress, people experiencing financial hardship are most impacted. The first step is providing safe and healthy living accommodations for people experiencing houselessness. From there, we can create affordable housing that promotes mental and physical health; adding usable outdoor space is a chance to improve the well-being of the residents. Courtyards, gardens, and green space are necessary amenities for a healthy, happy community.

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