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The Outdoors Belong to Everyone: Designing Three Different Spaces for Three Different Users

Ed Melvin

Lately, I’ve been digging and exploring in search of solutions for a wonderfully challenging project. It’s for the Delaware County Public Library’s Powell branch. The library system’s leadership and stakeholders have placed considerable value in creating outdoor spaces for their patrons — all of them. So my primary challenge has been to design three unique spaces, one each for children, adults and families.

Designing outdoor spaces for a library is very different from how I typically approach outdoor spaces for schools. For instance, schools generally don’t share common spaces with other parts of the neighborhood; they have their own sense of place; they restrict site access during school hours; and they cater to a very specific generational demographic.

In contrast, and by their very nature, libraries aren’t like that. They’re very often the busy, bustling heartbeat of a community and they serve everyone in the neighborhood.

As such, this project has stretched my thinking when it comes to such design essentials as access and meeting the differing needs of multiple generations. Each of the three spaces — one for kids, one for adults and one for families — presents its own unique challenges and enticing opportunities. As you would expect, this makes a major a difference in the approach.

For instance, libraries aren’t typically staffed for the constant monitoring of outdoor spaces. So, when designing an area for kids, you can’t incorporate the little hidey-holes and secret spots that you might design for a preschool’s outdoor classroom. For adults, a library’s outdoor area isn’t about play, of course, but work, with maybe a bit of socializing or small group gathering. Finally, the family area must facilitate the interaction between parents, or guardians, and children, while not being too childish nor too adult in its overall feel and aesthetic.

While we’re still working through exactly what we will build — and seeking input from the library’s internal and external stakeholders in the process — let me give you a sense of sense of each space via some of the imaginary future users I always have in mind when designing.

For The Kids

Five-year-old Lisa and her three-year-old brother, Danny, need to burn off some energy before their dad takes them to story time. Lisa is climbing on a delightful piece of playground equipment that looks like a stack of books. She shouts to her dad as she reaches the top, while Danny is content to run around the base of the structure, flapping his arms as if about to take flight. He then meanders over to the outdoor musical instruments and giggles as he “plays” the xylophone. Lisa joins him there and tries her best to match his rhythm with the bamboo shaker. They both laugh and their dad jokingly covers his ears and shakes his head. Lisa turns toward her dad and says, “This place smells like home,” something her dad agrees with — the patch of greenery featuring fragrant flowers reminiscent of scented candles. Danny races back to the stacked book playground structure with Lisa on his heels. They play a game of “gotcha” as they chase each other, squealing. Their dad tells them that it’s story time and they step over to the group area, where other children and their parents have already begun to gather. There’s palpable excitement in the air as a librarian walks toward the group with a copy of “Where the Wild Things Are” and some over-sized stuffed animals to aid in her storytelling.

For the Grown-Ups

Jennifer has come to the library to do some research in order to outline an industry report her boss assigned her. After spending two hours inside the library reviewing trade journals and economic data from the government, she has nearly 10 pages of notes on her laptop. She steps outside to clear her mind and transition from the fact-finding phase of her task to the more analytical stage. As she sits at a table, the sun feels good on her skin; it noticeably boosts her energy and raises her spirits. At nearby tables sit other adults, some in pairs and some, like her, solo. One woman is so obviously lost in her book that Jennifer imagines her reading beyond closing time and through the night. Jennifer admires the cardinal that just alit on one of the deep-green holly trees that separate the section she sits in from that with larger tables where groups of people work. She assumes that one of the groups is some sort of community service or political organization, with neighborhood maps splayed out in front of them. Another group looks like a team from a start-up. They’re engaged in a clearly passionate, but friendly, debate. Jennifer wonders if they may be working on a smartphone app or a new social media platform. She chuckles to herself as she recalls a silly video she watched on TikTok that morning. She then decides it’s time to get back to her work. She opens her laptop and the words begin to flow.

 

For The Families

 The Willinghams visit the library every Saturday afternoon. It’s become something of a family tradition. Jalah, the mom, enjoys sitting in the courtyard with her tablet reading stories from her newsfeed that caught her attention but that she didn’t have time to read during the hectic week. The dad, Terrence, pages through old magazines he borrowed from the periodical department, smiling at the stories and the ads he recalls from his childhood in the early 80’s. Their two-children, Levon and TJ, both high school students, sit at the same table doing their homework. Levon sketches the armor of a Renaissance knight, using as reference an oversized history book with woodcuts; TJ wrestles with his geometry class take-home test, while wondering what the cubed square footage of his bedroom may be. Jalah gets up to greet a neighbor she recognizes who’s sitting in another cubby area with her grandchildren. As she puts her arm on Terrance for balance and stands, he looks up from an article about the first space shuttle launch in 1981, looks at his sons, and wonders if they’ll make regular trips to space as civilian tourists.

Three separate spaces, equally important, designed to cater to the community and with specific audiences in mind; indeed, this is a dream-come-true assignment for me. With active spaces for little explorers, working and gathering spaces for adults and distinct experiential spaces for families—and with every possible inch of outdoor space maximized — the Powell Branch project has been challenging, yes, but deeply rewarding. In fact, I get goosebumps thinking about all the fun, learning and community-building it will enable.

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