Magnolias bloom in late March. |
It is late March in Palo Alto, California. The first Spring blooms—the azaleas and the early bulbs—have given way to tulips, camellias, calla lilies, and magnolias. The exuberant vegetation stands in stark contrast with my Minnesota garden, dormant still under a foot of unmelted snow. But equally apparent are the differences in how outdoor space is arranged in these two locales.
As I wander through the town of Palo Alto and other nearby communities, my attention is drawn again and again to what renowned architect and thinker Christopher Alexander calls "positive outdoor spaces"—that is, partly bounded outdoor areas that feel like separate places, like rooms or corridors or entrances or destinations.
Not only are the public spaces designed along these lines, but the residential streets near downtown Palo Alto also create positive outdoor spaces. Most of the small front yards are surrounded by hedges or fences or trellised climbers. Lawns are rare in the boulevards, which are often planted with overhanging trees to make corridors, or with lush combinations of plants that line both sides of the sidewalk, making individual stroll gardens.
|This Sheraton Inn is built around two connected courtyards. One hosts the swimming pool, and the other a path among several koi ponds with lush vegetation, including trees. |
|Mature evergreens shade a serene fountain in the cool semi-courtyard created by the L-shaped Chamber of Commerce building in Palo Alto. |
On the whole, most of the outdoor areas I see as I explore this bit of California exemplify Alexander's term "positive outdoor spaces". Most of the outdoor areas near my home in Saint Paul, Minnesota, don't.
Outdoor spaces in commercial areas of Saint Paul seem better designed for human use than the landscapes of nearby residential areas. Grand Avenue, for instance, is a long street of unique little shops, small buildings that house collections of cafes and restaurants and specialty shops, with pretty lampposts and a minimum of signage, and frequent benches near potted plants to tempt passersby. There's also a street in downtown Saint Paul, Seventh Place, that's been paved over and given up to pedestrians, and it forms a pleasant long courtyard that is taken up by several restaurants and theatres. In terms of creating positive outdoor space, these commercial areas seem reasonably successful.
|This slim side yard and boulevard together form a corridor with tree branches above and ivy below, a place with its own character through which the sidewalk passes. |
|Plantings, including rosemary bushes in bloom, flank this entry gate, shaping it into a place with a unique identity. |
In contrast, private landscapes in my neighborhood tend to be formless, boundaryless, amorphous. Front lawns flow together past the houses along an entire residential block. Narrow spaces between buildings are ignored and often littered, muddy, unplanted, unused except perhaps as passages to be got through as quickly as possible. They lead to unappealing stretches of pavement, wide streets, barren concrete walks, pothole-riddled alleys.
|Partly enclosed side yards could become positive outdoor spaces but often remain unused. |
There is a different feeling to the majority of outdoor spaces in the Palo Alto and Saint Paul regions, particularly in the residential areas. I wonder if the disparity reflects a difference in how the residents of each community view the outdoors.
Do the yards of individual homes in my region seldom become individual places because they are only used during half the year, the other half being given over to winter? Do builders and residents of this area see the outdoors merely as space that is left over after the buildings -- where people spend most of their time -- are built?
|I spend more time outdoors on sunny winter days now that I've added sheltered outdoor seating areas, like this front patio, to our garden. |
I must wonder, would we in the northern regions spend more time outdoors, perhaps especially in winter, if we had more well-defined and welcoming outdoor places? Would they provide exactly what we need -- a more urgent invitation to linger outside, a protected area in which to soak up the weak and transient winter sun, a balm to lift our spirits during these endless gray days spent indoors, a touch of nature to remind us, and give us hope, that Spring will come again?