The Critical Role of Outdoor Spaces for the 21st Century Library

by Traci Engel Lesneski

Outdoor Space and the Library

Libraries serve as critical community partners. They evaluate current and future needs and proactively through service provision fill gaps in the community fabric. They sometimes fail to capitalise on a key asset in their toolkit: the outdoors. Library buildings have historically made use of their surroundings to underscore the significance of the building, focus on the attributes of the location and enhance the “place”, beautifying the environment. Libraries of all types and size and in all climates and locations can use their outdoor spaces to enrich the way they fulfill their missions and to serve their communities more effectively. By focusing on the outdoors and virtually turning the library inside out, libraries can increase their available real estate and provide a wide range of benefits to users.

Southwest Regional Library, Louisville, Kentucky, USA, features curving paths and an infiltration basin bridge, providing opportunities for visitors to understand the surrounding environment.

Encouraging Healthy Lifestyles

Design of libraries can encourage healthy living both inside the library and outdoors. Sit-to-stand worktables are prevalent in staff workrooms and becoming more common in public areas. For lengthy library visits, these types of workstations can help get the blood flowing and prevent back and neck issues. Libraries can promote the use of stairs instead of elevators by making stairs easy to find, more convenient to use and even fun. Unique features such as literary quotes on stair risers, and treads that play music when stepped on, can motivate users of all ages groups to use the stairs.

Ensuring a sound relationship between inside the building and the outdoors has many health benefits. For example, studies have shown that a visual connection to the outdoors increases focus and productivity for library users and provides a sense of well-being. Spaces with access to natural light have rejuvenating benefits for both library users and staff. Providing safe, attractive exterior spaces for staff and visitors extends the focus on wellness.

Libraries in urban locations can ensure their inclusion in the routes of walking tours for tourists and locals, thereby encouraging walking by the community and marketing of their services.  Programming for adults and children can feature outdoor activities linked to community exercise classes. Signs and marketing outreach can highlight the benefits of being active. Some libraries offer secure, covered parking for bicycles and by this means promote their use.

Locations with large areas of green space can host community gardens and support the consumption of nutritious, non-processed local produce.  Well-lit walking paths and convenient connections to surrounding parks and pathways are popular amenities for many libraries. Weather and climate need not be barriers to using outdoor paths. Covered pathways in hot or wet climates facilitate use particularly with inclement weather. The sharing economy has increased borrowing of various items. In cold climates, why not include snowshoe or ski rentals at the library to encourage participation in outdoor activities? The possibilities are limitless.

The xeriscape-designed garden outside the Sahara West library and Fine Arts Museum, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, invites visitors to enjoy strolling the library’s location before entering the building.

Saving the Planet

Human health is inextricably linked to care of the planet Earth. The library is a highly visible community entity. It can create within the community an awareness of the need for conservation of the environment and provide details of potential improvements through such activities as composting, water conservation, and ecological best practices. The Ramsey County Roseville Library, Minnesota, USA, has a children’s garden featuring an above-ground cistern that collects rainwater from the building’s roof. A spigot on the cistern gives children access to the water, which they can collect in library-provided buckets to water the plants. When a rain event causes spillover, the water travels in a series of visible streams with displays that explore the operation of the water cycle. Vistas of exterior sustainable features from inside the building also serve to raise awareness of ecological issues. The positioning of the Roseville Library’s rainwater collection system within view of the children’s lounge area allows the library to showcase water conservation activities in all weathers.


Space for Creative Programming

Library programmes include creative and practical activities for users. Students of all ages and disciplines are increasingly called upon to create projects involving hands-on experiences as well as information access and use. Some “making” activities are messy.  Others require considerable space for their execution or natural resources. Some creative approaches incorporate analogue and digital techniques. The growth of the makerspace movement within libraries has brought with it new reasons to be outside. The library can become a hub for creative activities both inside and outside. In some instances, all that is required is the simple dedication of space. Others require access to power. Urban libraries with limited space can put sidewalks, footpaths, balconies, patios or verandas to use. The visible use of external spaces to passers-by encourages further interest in the library and reinforces its role as a relevant and up-to-date community asset.

“Maker” activities spill out onto the sidewalk at the Madison Central Library, Wisconsin, USA.

Respite and Relaxation

Libraries have traditionally been places where people have sought solace, inspiration, rest, relaxation and rejuvenation. Project for Public Spaces (PPS) ( )  is the central hub of a global movement connecting people to ideas, expertise, and partners who share a passion for creating vital places. The project describes great public places as accessible, clean, attractive, safe and comfortable places that support activities, where people of all ages meet each other. If the library offers a variety of outdoor options (shaded, sunny, private and communal) and a strong outdoor Wi-Fi signal, diverse groups will use external seating areas for work, meetings and project work, as well as reading and contemplation.

A reading porch outside the Hennepin County Library in Maple Grove, Minnesota, USA, provides respite and a space for reading and reflection.

Community Fun

Does your library building have a large nondescript exterior wall? The Tulsa City-County Central Library used the wall of a parking garage to create an outdoor screening room in a garden space. Other libraries build patios outside multi-purpose rooms, allowing receptions and meetings to spill outdoors on fine days. Snowman-building competitions or art “make-offs” can bring a community together. The library occupies a unique place in society, and connecting with community members on a purely fun level buttresses the perception of the library as a safe place for all and a significant asset to the community.

Moviegoers enjoy an event in the garden at Tulsa City-County Central Library.

Generating Energy

Outdoor spaces are increasingly being pressed into practical service as society demands extended sustainability from public buildings, involving energy regeneration and some return to the environment.  Technological advances including photovoltaic (PV) panels and wind turbines are becoming more commonplace and creating a greater awareness of the importance of renewable energy sources. Libraries can add an element of fun by outfitting green roofs or outdoor patios with bicycle energy farms to help staff and visitors burn energy (and calories), while creating electricity to power an aspect of the library, such as laptop charging stations.

Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels on Madison Central Library’s green roof.

Feeding Inspiration

Libraries fuel inspiration through a wide variety of resources inside the building and through Internet access. Inspiration for patrons can also come from outside the building. Outdoor spaces can feature public art, offer serendipitous encounters and encourage community interactions. Amenities such as Madison Central Library’s LED wall pique the interest of artists and passersby, promote interaction with the building and create new understandings of what it means to be a central community asset. Public art installations, such as those created by Candy Chang, artist of the wildly successful “Before I Die” project engage the community in many different ways.

Outdoor spaces and activities can be used by libraries as leverage in service delivery as well as the design of the building. An inventory of outdoor assets will lead to new and exciting discoveries about their potential use in service and outreach to the community.


Author details

Traci Engel Lesneski is Principal & Head of Interiors at MSR Design, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Traci has led dozens of library projects across the United States in her 20+ years designing libraries and learning spaces. Her belief that smartly designed buildings improve lives ensures that her library designs are beautiful, functional, and sustainable. Recent examples of her work include the award winning, dramatic re-imagination of the Madison Central Library, Wisconsin, and transformation of Tulsa City County  Library’s  Central  Library, Oklahoma. Traci speaks regularly at library conferences and she is the author of numerous articles and papers about library design. Traci is currently chair of the ALA LLAMA/BES Architecture for Public Libraries Committee and Secretary of the IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section Standing Committee.

(An earlier version of this blog was originally published for Demco Interiors)


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