Kew Gardens (pictured, top) has long been a favourite local hang-out for my family and me, but on our first visit there since lockdown, my wife and I found ourselves having to rethink how we usually interact with the space. Normally, our three children would dive into the play areas and we’d stop off for a leisurely lunch at the restaurant, followed by a little walk before heading home.
But, for obvious reasons, the playground wasn’t an option, so instead of climbing giant plastic leaves, our kids had to revert to safer play things, like trees. We grabbed takeaway coffees and snacks on the go and as a family we discovered new parts of Kew we’d never seen before.
At the start of 2020, many of us looked forward to a summer of weddings, festivals, holidays and carefree summer parties and gatherings with family and friends, but activities were swiftly reduced to Netflix bingeing and marathon queuing sessions outside supermarkets.
As outdoor public spaces are a safer option than indoor ones, our social lives are increasingly shifting outside. Public parks are being treated like cafés, libraries, bars and gyms rolled into one, as people in cities do more socialising, leisure activities and exercise in their local parks than ever before. In order for people to enjoy themselves and socialise in comfort, we need to maximise the opportunities for al fresco living year round and find new ways to be outside. Here’s a guide to rethinking the great outdoors.
1 Allow visitors to roam free and discover new spaces
As we found with Kew Gardens, if you are encouraged to roam, there can be plenty of new stuff to discover. Outdoor experience design should allow for free-range wandering. If you are an events organiser or a brand planning an outdoor experience, make sure visitors don’t feel too hemmed in. People should have access to plenty of space so they can stay engaged and entertained, with the added bonus of always being able to keep a safe distance from others.
2 Give clear guidance to help people stay safe and stress free
While free-range roaming should be encouraged, it should also happen within a carefully managed framework. There should be plenty of signage showing people where they can make stop-offs safely and guiding them on socially distanced queuing to avoid large groupings or pinch points in potentially high-traffic areas, such as cafés. These areas can potentially raise stress levels for people if not managed properly. Giving clear, easy-to-interpret guidelines helps everyone to enjoy the experience.
3 Make it easy to be responsible
With the world opening up again and pubs inviting punters back in, it’s clearly harder to control individual behaviour on a macro level. Some people will not care so much about social distancing, while for others keeping a two-metre distance and having everyone around you do the same is a critical part of being outside. This becomes extremely problematic at outdoor events, especially those where alcohol is served, such as festivals.
A key part of organising outdoor experiences is putting in place a workable behavioural code that makes everyone feel relaxed. Enlisting helpers to entertain people while ensuring they stay safe is one way of doing this. Selfridges is among those putting the emphasis on fun with its plans to put on entertainment and DJ sets for shoppers queuing outside its stores.
A bar in Maryland in the US introduced its own social-distancing scheme to keep drinkers safe, involving giant rubber rings that drinkers can get inside and walk around in. Another – more practical – solution is colour-coded wristbands that quickly and effectively communicate everyone’s preferences regarding social distancing, with green for people who are less concerned about their personal space, orange for people comfortable with a one-metre distance and red for those want to ensure a safe two-metre distance. Currently, the organisation C19 ID Project is producing colour-coded wristbands like these that communicate people’s antibody status.
Key to success is ensuring that guidance is offered with humour and a lightness of touch. Positive reinforcement will nudge people into doing the right thing and is scientifically proven to be much more effective than telling people off.
4 Design for all weathers
The move outdoors has to be viable in all seasons and all weathers. You want people to immerse themselves in the experience, yet be comfortable and fully protected from the elements. This is where clever design comes in. Along with outdoor heaters, you can have half-walled areas and spaces that are part-covered with glass or a roof to keep people dry and warm but also retain the airiness and open space.
5 Dial up the sensory experience
As interacting through touch will be restricted, other sensory experiences, such as sound and scent, should be dialled up in an outdoor experience. Brands and events organisers can be creative with sound and art exhibitions and outdoor spaces – for example, Goodwood Sculpture Park has long used compelling audio installations.
Food served in an outdoor space could also offer a more multisensory experience, as pioneered by Heston Blumenthal with his famous Sounds of the Sea dish. Another great leader in this space is Bompas & Parr, which created the immersive, sensory "Future forest" experience at Westfield, bringing the outdoors indoors in a creative way.
The current situation undoubtedly brings with it many challenges, but with the right amount of creative and strategic thinking we can continue to make the most of life al fresco.
Christophe Castagnera is head of connected experiences at Imagination
Picture: Getty Images