The Importance of Flexibility in the Design of Outdoor Spaces

May 01, 2019

The following article was written by Senior Associate Ruth Loetterle.

Successful communities are communities that embrace change, that accommodate new ideas, and welcome new members and new activities. The outdoor spaces used by successful communities need to exhibit that same flexibility—the spaces need to be able to adapt to change, meet the needs of different age groups, personalities, and activities, and respond to weekly and seasonal fluctuations in use. Spaces that serve vibrant, dynamic communities need to incorporate flexibility in their design, incorporating elements and features that are movable and accommodate a variety of uses over those that are prescriptive in nature.

At Kittredge Park in Roxbury, MA these cylindrical landscape elements serve as a small climber, table, informal stage, and the perfect place to have a lunchtime chess match with your older brother.

The new Auditorium Steps at UMass Dartmouth accommodate small group or individual seating for daily use, as well as provide ample gathering space for large campus events.

Flexible spaces accommodate fluctuations in use, looking vibrant when occupied by a few or many users. At the Mercantile Center in Worcester, a previously underutilized space between a parking garage and an office building has been transformed for daily use by people employed nearby as well as for the enjoyment of large crowds of fans when sporting or concert events are at the DCU Center a block away. An accessible stage used for game day and the other large celebrations that are programmed for the space becomes an elevated dining and sitting terrace during the week on warm days.


The Festival Plaza at Chinatown Park: this flexible multi-use space, adjacent to the traditional Beach Street gate, provides a stage for the numerous festivals, celebrations, and gatherings throughout the year.

Flexible spaces accommodate seasonal change by presenting a welcoming face throughout the year. While adapting The Christian Science Plaza, a Boston historic landmark and premier open space for the city, to twenty-first century sensibilities and issues related to sustainable practices, we also enhanced its use through the seasons. Reconstruction of the large reflecting pool, the central feature of the space, was prompted by its leaking into the parking garage below and the unsustainable amount of water needed to fill the three foot deep pool and keep it operational. In reconstructing the pool with a consistent, shallower eight inch depth, the bottom of the pool was redesigned and resurfaced to provide the experience of reflectivity when the pool was empty as well as full.

Flexible spaces accommodate the fluctuations in the space of the use through the incorporation of movable furniture in the space. Movable furniture is key to the success of Mercantile Center and is planned for The Christian Science Plaza. At The District, a mixed use development in Burlington, MA, intensive programming of the roof deck, the main social space for the development, is accommodated through careful placement of fixed features and the use of a wide variety of movable furniture. Movable furniture facilitates the accommodation of yoga, informal dining, and networking events in the same space, as well as allowing individual users to make adjustments for their comfort and social needs.

Flexible spaces benefit from providing a variety of seating surfaces. While benches will remain the preferred seating for older visitors to any space, seatwalls and steps offer the advantage of accommodating other functions in addition to seating. Both walls and steps can provide physical challenges for children, display space for impromptu exhibits, and elevated podiums for small performances. Low walls of ample width promote their use for sitting in a multitude of directions, increasing their flexibility of the space. At the Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts a new courtyard space with broad, low walls, multiple flights of broad steps, and a gently sloping lawn provides seating for a wide variety of uses. Informal seating during regular school days is provided by the walls, steps, and lawn. Seating for outdoor performances can be accommodated on the lawn with the main steps as the stage, or the venue can be flipped with the seating on the steps and the stage in the central courtyard. For school-wide dances, the steps provide the stage for the musicians with the courtyard transformed into the dance floor with movable furniture brought in for the event.