Ah, to stroll far from the madding crowd!

The Arnold Arboretum uses a border of trees, topography and a serpentine path system to belie its built up Boston setting.

The Arnold Arboretum uses a border of trees, topography and a serpentine path system to belie its built up Boston setting.

Ideally we stroll away from our day-to-day habitat into an area we think of as a wide-ranging world apart. Large parks or extensive natural areas clearly fill this bill, but so do small gardens and urban paths if they’re designed with extent and separateness in mind.

A distinct boundary or a designed difference between a place and its surroundings conveys a sense of a separate world.

As for extent, we imagine a small space being a large one if the designer employs spatially enlarging illusions, borrowed scenery, or elongated trails. Of course, these tactics make already large spaces seem larger yet.  A little more about each of these tactics.

Separateness

A coherent patch radically different from its surroundings defines it as a place apart. The distinction can be made with colors, vegetation, materials, or furnishing styles, but vertical separation has the greatest impact. Think top of knoll or sunken council ring.

At the same time, strong borders—thick, high, opaque—also isolate us from the hum-drum world outside.

Extensive

Blaise Hamlet near Bristol, England, has an apparently extensive common because its picturesque cottages, trees, and shrubs hide its boundaries.

Blaise Hamlet near Bristol, England, has an apparently extensive common because its picturesque cottages, trees, and shrubs hide its boundaries.

Boundary forms matter. Tall, obvious walls tend to shrink the apparent size of a place, making it an enclosure. Think prison yard.

By contrast, mixed borders of trees and shrubs enlarge an area’s apparent extent because their nooks and crannies create depth: Who knows? They may be the front edge of a forest. Meanwhile, their complex foliage distracts from the limited size of the place and makes it feel like there’s more “going on” in the space—Hey, with all this going on, it must be large!

If the border is disguised so it can’t be read as a border, the apparent size of the place increases even more.

Beyond disguises lie spatial illusions, which enlarge small areas by toying with the factors we use to estimate length and breadth. Our primary calculators are the number of layers and overlaps, light and shadow, size and elevation, forced perspective, and atmospheric perspective.

Gertrude Jekyll drove the longest diagonal path possible—the Green Wood Walk—to help maximize the apparent size of her gardens at Munstead Wood.

Gertrude Jekyll drove the longest diagonal path possible—the Green Wood Walk—to help maximize the apparent size of her gardens at Munstead Wood.

Manipulating these on-site effects can be amplified where a distant similar landscape can be glimpsed as an additional layer, as in the Japanese technique of borrowed scenery, or shakkei.

Long paths and paths that require a long time to traverse also expand space.

Paths of maximum length either twist back and forth upon themselves like the central walk at the Arnold Arboretum or angle across the site’s longest diagonal, as Gertrude Jekyll did at Munstead Wood.

Even direct, relatively short urban sidewalks provide long, if less than ideal, strolls because of the density of stores to visit or window-shop, the number of casual or social encounters, the maneuvering around café seats, protruding stairs and oncoming pedestrians, and the time needed to rest, chat, and people-watch.

In short, in nearly every setting there’s some design tactic to create a semblance of separateness and extent for strolling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *