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Urban oasis – inner city small courtyard design

We all can't live out on sprawling lifestyle blocks – these tips from spatial designer Jennie Dunlop help you create relaxing outdoor escapes in the city

From Jenny Dunlop, Dunlop Design

Living in a busy city suburbs can sometimes feel like being in constant motion – rarely a moment to breathe. 

And choosing to live in the inner city often starts with a decision for a low-maintenance outdoor space.

But just imagine, having your very own personal retreat.

An intimate courtyard that serves not just as an external space, but as a series of enchanting ‘garden rooms’ – where each area tells its story.

For spatial designer Jennie Dunlop of Dunlop Design, it’s all in a day’s work.

Inner city courtyard design is one of her passions, and she has built a reputation for turning small gardens into liveable external spaces.

Seamless integration of outdoor spaces

The magic starts by embracing the inherent architecture of your abode and integrating it with the green sanctuary of your courtyard. 

From villas to townhouses; apartments to flats, any outdoor space can be reconsidered. 

Just like rooms inside your house, each garden room can reflect a different mood, and narrative. 

It’s simply a matter of creating a seamless continuity from inside to out.

A favourite example is from a St Mary’s Bay
A favourite example is from a St Mary’s Bay Townhouse which leant itself to a Balinese aesthetic

To achieve a distinctively Pacific Rim feel, Jennie Dunlop takes inspiration from the style of architecture and complements it with modern influences. 

A favourite influence is the Balinese courtyard garden, which focuses on creating a harmonious and peaceful space that blends seamlessly into its tropical surroundings.

Low-maintenance plants that thrive in a subtropical climate suit this style and create a backdrop for carefully curated outdoor furniture settings.

“Taking inspiration from my travels in Asia and the Pacific Rim, I often incorporate aspects of Balinese exteriors or Japanese Zen garden into client design," says Jennie Dunlop.

"Asian gardens are often thoughtfully centred around sculpture and water features.”

Creating functional zones

With careful planning, your small courtyard can cater to all your needs. 

Consider incorporating separate areas for relaxation, al fresco dining, and even a pocket-sized garden for planting.

This might include citrus and herbs or seasonal strawberries, tomatoes or chillis. 

The zoning of your space helps to keep it uncluttered and ensures each area serves its purpose effectively and efficiently.

A quiet oasis for a fix of sunshine.
A quiet oasis for a fix of sunshine.

Creating a sense of openness is key in small courtyards, especially those in bustling city centres. 

Light coloured materials with use of reflective materials can create an illusion of a larger space, bouncing light around your courtyard and evoking a breezy, airy and intimate atmosphere.

A plunge pool is the ultimate inner city
A plunge pool is the ultimate inner city courtyard gem.

The story of your garden rooms

Every great story has well-defined chapters, similarly, your courtyard could be segmented into various garden rooms. 

Perhaps a kitchen garden room near the back door, with the tantalising aroma of fresh herbs. 

Next, could be a tranquil water garden room featuring a calm pond, feeding into the narrative of tranquillity in the midst of urban hustle. 

Regardless of your choice, creating inviting places to sit, eat and entertain are what make a courtyard functional.

Overcoming the inner city’s unique challenges

The narrative of designing in the inner city wouldn’t be complete without overcoming the challenges of often having to deal with limited soil depth. 

But every great story has its obstacles, and overcoming them becomes part of the tale.

Through thoughtful design and appropriate plant selection, you
Through thoughtful design and appropriate plant selection, you can create your own private oasis.

The smart use of planters or raised beds could become an integral part of your courtyard’s fable, providing the stage for espaliered lemon trees or a screen of tall bamboo. 

While the focus for Dunlop Design is clever use of space and furniture, working in tandem with a good landscaper is useful. 

Through thoughtful design and appropriate plant selection, the tranquillity and private oasis you crave can become your reality – your narrative of peaceful living.

“A great way to bring the eye down is by using stylish greenery, wall art, pots and lighting to create interest in order to disguise ugly external elements like powerlines," says the designer. 

"Non-suckling bamboo is a good greenery choice for New Zealand courtyards.”


Spatial designer Jennie Dunlop of Dunlop Design.
Spatial designer Jennie Dunlop of Dunlop Design.

With decades of experience in the field of spatial design – including outdoor spaces – Jennie Dunlop has established herself as one of the most accomplished and respected professionals in the New Zealand spatial and interior design industry.

Throughout her illustrious career, Jennie Dunlop has accumulated a remarkable list of achievements and has received numerous awards and accolades, including several Trends International Design Awards.

Moreover, her extensive portfolio showcases her expertise in new developments, renovations, and restorations. 

Find out more about Dunlop Design

Designed by: Jennie Dunlop, Dunlop Design

Story by: Trendsideas

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