How to redesign any outdoor space you have, even a fire escape

Editor’s note: This is part of Redesign Everything, a new series about creative ways to reinvigorate your life in the new year, whether it’s your wardrobe, your side hustle, or your Zoom bookshelf. Read the first two installments here and here.

COVID-19 rates are spiking around the United States, forcing many regions back into lockdown. In the summer and fall, people were able to spend time outside, even when the temperature started to drop. But now, in the middle of winter, many of us are well and truly homebound. It’s easy to feel gloomy about the long winter ahead, but Andrea Cochran, a prominent, award-winning landscape architect, believes there are plenty of ways to spend time outside, even if you live in a shoebox and the only outdoor space you have is a fire escape. “Staying connected to nature makes your home—and your world—just feel bigger,” she says.

Cochran has a gift for seeing connections between built space and the natural world that surrounds it. Each of her projects is designed to help people forge a deeper relationship with their environment, even in dense cities. She has helped define the Bay Area’s landscape design aesthetic through projects like the rooftop of Twitter’s San Francisco office, which creates greenery where employees can mingle in the heart of the city, and a lush children’s play space that looks onto San Francisco’s City Hall.

She brings this way of seeing the world to her own home, too. Throughout the pandemic, she has been living in Napa Valley, where she spends her days staring at a redwood tree, planting amaryllis bulbs on her counter, and enjoying the sounds of her neighbor’s children playing across the yard. Here are her tips for making the best use of any outdoor space you have during the pandemic winter.

Use Outdoor Spaces To Connect with Others

In Cochran’s experience, people tend to think of their gardens as private spaces and tend to be less creative about using spaces in full view of their neighbors. In busy cities, that might mean a fire escape or small deck; in more suburban spaces, that might be the front lawn. Cochran acknowledges that this is often because we’re trying to create distance and privacy from our neighbors. But during this period of social isolation, she suggests trying something else.

“It might be time to lower the hedges between ourselves and other people, both physically and metaphorically,” she says. “Outdoor spaces can be a way to forge connection with other people, which is something we all need right now.”

If you have a small front area, consider using it for something that will get you outside, where you’ll be able to see people walking down your street and say hello. In the cold months, you could jump rope or do a little workout there. Or set up a game, like bocce ball, croquet, or cornhole. When the weather begins to warm up, you might consider using the space to plant a small vegetable garden. “Many of us are feeling skittish about going to the grocery store, so this allows you to spend time outside while also putting food on the table,” Cochran says.

You might even try actively inviting the neighborhood to stop by. You could set up a Little Lending Library or a Community Sharing Table to share books, food, and other supplies with neighbors. If you live in an apartment building or a condo, you could ask the landlord or board whether they would be open to something like this. “You never know,” Cochran says. “You might meet people you really like in your community and find lifelong friends.”

Use Outdoor Spaces to Find Solitude

There are times, however, when you’re looking for some solitude outside. Many homes have unused outdoor space like awkward corners or a deck, porch, or terrace. Cochran says one of these could become a perfect, quiet spot to meditate, journal, or drink your morning coffee. There are easy ways to turn even the smallest, tightest spaces into a sanctuary. If it’s not frigid but merely cool, you could set up a small heater, have blankets on hand, and even buy an affordable fountain, powered by a pump, that recirculates water for some white noise. “A space like that can allow you to escape, for just a while, and feel less constrained by the four walls of your house,” she says.

Bring Nature To You

Cochran believes we can temper our social isolation during the pandemic by building a connection to the plants, trees, and animals that live right outside our windows. Studies find that communing with nature is good for our mental health. Cochran points out that it also helps you observe the passage of time, making the winter feel less endless.

There are small things you can do to bring nature to you, no matter where you live. A game-changer for Cochran has been buying a bird feeder and attaching it to a spot where she has a clear view of it. She recommends buying one from a garden store or supermarket, then placing it in a spot where you can enjoy watching the birds’ activity, like a kitchen window or a fire escape. “It’s hard not to get absorbed [in] the birds that come visit, appreciating the color of their feathers or the sounds they make,” she says.

Plants are another obvious way to interact with nature, but some offer more immediate gratification than others. For instance, Cochran set up an herb garden by a window in her kitchen because these plants grow quickly and she frequently uses them in her cooking. She also bought amaryllis and narcissus bulbs to simply watch them come to life in the wintertime. “It’s especially fun for children to watch the bulbs grow roots,” she says. “It’s satisfying to see signs of life when the earth looks so bare.”

Finally, even if you have no outdoor space at all, you can set up your desk close to a window and adopt any trees that you see outside, even if they’re not technically yours. It’s a small mental shift, but Cochran says that creating an attachment to the trees has a calming effect and helps break up the monotony of quarantine. She’s spent a lot of time staring at the redwood outside her window. “You see what birds build nests on the tree and how the foliage changes from day to day,” she says.

It’s a small way to make your world feel bigger.