Designing across the generations for age-friendly places

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Going outdoors is essential for maintaining health and wellbeing into later life, but many older people find it becomes less easy, enjoyable and meaningful as they age, writes Iain Scott, Co-investigator of Mobility, Mood and Place (MMP).

To help ensure that living longer is a positive experience for everyone, we need evidence-based solutions to the various challenges presented by our urban and rural environments.

Over a three-and-a-half-year period, the Mobility, Mood and Place (MMP) research project has been bringing together early career designers and older participants to envision places, from homes to public spaces, which are inclusive, enabling and inspirational.

Our findings have implications for the way we design for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities so that going outdoors in younger years becomes a lifelong passion for getting out and about.

Co-designing across the lifecourse

MMP has involved a large team of researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, York, Virginia and King’s College London, and a combination of methods, from measuring brainwaves outdoors, to looking at archival data on how environments have changed over time.

This article looks at the practical, co-design element of the project, in which I have been most closely involved.

As well as established researchers, 84 students have participated, largely from postgraduate programmes in architecture and landscape architecture at Edinburgh College of Art.

Over four years of studio work, we have focused on three urban environments – Castlefield in Manchester, Hackney Wick & the Olympic Park in London, and various sites across Copenhagen – and one rural location, the northern Scottish islands of Orkney.

Challenging widespread assumptions about ageing and place

The co-design techniques used in MMP range from simple drawing and model-making, to walk-and-talk site visits, photo diaries, and community mapping.

From short group exercises arranged over two to three days, the students have generated sophisticated final designs over a period of months, under the direction of myself as studio leader, and colleagues.

As designers, we’ve found that many older participants’ attitudes run counter to what we might have expected, particularly with regards to the forgotten and abandoned infrastructure of inner city areas.

For example, many participants have been keen to see disused viaducts and railway lines transformed into elevated linear parks, offering a way to engage with different parts of the city while avoiding busy roads and difficult crossings.

What really makes a difference to quality of life?

Through MMP’s co-design work, ‘access to others’ has emerged as one of four key place factors which really make a difference to quality of life – the others being ‘access to nature’, ‘access for all’, and ‘access to light’.

Instead of segregated communities, there has been strong support for public spaces and buildings that offer opportunities for intergenerational interaction, enabling older people to engage with public activity, but also to rest, retreat and regard or view activities without necessarily having to participate.

Green spaces seem to be restorative, offering a respite from the tiring demands that busy urban places make on our directed attention. Looking at mobility in particular, our team has found that even a short walk can lift the mood if the environment is sufficiently varied.

Things like colour and wildlife, opportunities for social contact, and familiar places, especially those linked to key memories, are highly valued, while everyday things, such as pavement quality, benches and street lighting, can make all the difference to confidence in going out and about as we get older. The mundane matters and the commonplace counts!

In a new publication, we have summarised 13 key things uncovered through MMP co-design about older people’s needs and preferences for age-friendly environments. To celebrate the launch of the publication, and secure your copy, please join us for an evening reception at A&DS, Bakehouse Close, on Wednesday 8th November at 6pm. Register on Eventbrite 



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