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"What's in it for me?" The importance of the 'built environment' for living well with dementia

built environments

Strangely enough, with the focus of drugs, drugs, and yet more drugs, there’s been relatively scant attention for the environment in which a person living with dementia finds himself or herself in.

Improving wellbeing for a person is essentially about understanding the past and present of that person, and building on that person’s beliefs, concerns and expectations about the future. But the idea that you can ignore the environment is simply science-fiction.

The design of care homes maters. The design of hospital wards matter. The design of towns including pavings and signs matters.

Such an approach sounds ambitious and joined up, but not impossible. There’s been a long and proud history in England of understanding the social determinants of health, including housing.

The Attlee Government also extended the powers of local authorities to requisition houses and parts of houses, and made the acquisition of land less difficult than before. In 1949, local authorities were empowered to provide people suffering from poor health with public housing at subsidised rents. That very same year, unemployment, sickness and maternity benefits were exempted from tax.

Recent research suggests that wellbeing in later life is closely related to the physical environment, which is an important mediator of ageing experiences and opportunities. The physical character of the built environments or neighbourhood in particular seems to have a significant impact on the mobility, independence and quality of life of older people living in the local community.

According to a “Greenspace Scotland” report from 2008, “Trust for Nature” is a community-based conservation organisation that focuses on the protection of private land of high conservation value in the state of Victoria, Australia.

In recent research by Inclusive Design for Getting Outdoors (ID’GO), 15% of questionnaire respondents (a large sample, nearing 1000 in sample size) had stumbled or fallen outside within the last 12 months. The real figure is likely to be higher, since past-year falls are often under-reported. Many of the environmental risk factors associated with outdoor falls appear to be preventable through better design and maintenance; factors including pavement quality, dilapidation and kerb height.

Abstract experiential qualities such as perceptions of ‘safety’ and ‘attractiveness’ have been identified as important factors in stated preferences for parks and green spaces and there has been much written over many years on landscape aesthetics  and how this might influence preference and use.

By contrast with research on environment and health, arguably this is a domain rich in theoretical concepts for the mechanisms behind engagement with the environment but poor in terms of tools to measure the detailed spatial and structural qualities of different landscapes in relation to how people actually use and experience them. For landscape designers, this is of crucial interest. There have been, historically, attempts to develop guidance based on general principles, but few tools actually to measure the dynamic spatial experience in practice.

A built environment for all ages is conceptualised as one that has been designed so that people can access and enjoy it over the course of their lifetime, regardless of ability or circumstance. Such environments are said to be designed “inclusively”. The I’DGO (Inclusive Design for Getting Outdoors) consortium was launched in 2004 to investigate how outdoor environments affect older people’s wellbeing and to identify what aspects of design help or hinder older people in using the outdoors. Their focus is on identifying the most effective ways of shaping outdoor environments inclusively. They support the needs and preferences of older people and disabled people, always seeking to improve their independence and overall quality of life.

I’DGO was set up to explore the ways in which being able to get out into one’s local neighbourhood impacts on older people’s wellbeing and what barriers there are to achieving this, day-to-day. The project asked the crucial question: why do we need a built environment for all ages? The first phase of research, which finished in 2006, involved over 770 people aged 65 or above. Participants were asked about their wellbeing and quality of life, how often and why they went outdoors and what features of their local neighbourhood helped or hindered their activity. Researchers also physically audited 200 residential neighbourhoods to look for barriers and benefits to getting around as a pedestrian.

The I’DGO research found quickly that older people went outdoors very frequently to socialise, exercise, get fresh air and experience nature. If they lived in a supportive environment – one that made it easy and enjoyable for them to get outdoors – they were more likely to be physically active, healthy and satisfied with life. Walking was by far the most common way that people spent their time outdoors, whether for recreation or transport (‘getting from A to B’). Participants in the I’DGO study who lived within 10 minutes’walk of an open space were twice as likely to achieve the recommended levels of healthy walking (2.5 hours/week) as those whose nearest open space was not local.

A major research goal has been to examine the specific attribute of neighbourhood streets – tactile paving at steps and crossings – and asks how this affects the biomechanics of walking and risk of falling in older people (the project run by the SURFACE Inclusive Design Research Centre and their colleagues in Health, Sport and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Salford). The benefits of tactile paving for blind and visually impaired people have been well established yet the system is not without its issues.

Tactile paving is not a policy area without its concerns, and a few in particular emerge from a report by the UK Health and Safety Executive. This report suggested that there is a need better to understand the extent and implications of incorrectly designed and laid tactile paving, and the toe clearance of an individual in negotiating paving ‘blisters’ and potential slip hazards. These factors appear to be crucial to older people, since many of the first phase ID’GO interviewees expressed concerns about falling
or feeling unstable on tactile surfaces and fall-related injuries are associated with loss of independence, morbidity and death in older people.

If we are to understand what qualities of the environment are important to an ability of individuals to ‘live well’, we need perhaps to acknowledge the diversity that exists in people’s capabilities, experience, desires and needs. This overall is a huge challenge for designers; the response conventionally has been to look for factors in the environment that matter to most people, or to a defined group of people, and to address those factors as if they were equally important. Yet for any individual, different qualities and elements in the environment may be a matter of indifference (e.g. certain colours if you are visually impaired) or vitally important (e.g. proximity of an accessible toilet if you have a weak bladder).

Such an approach builds on the concept of “affordance” and the reciprocal relationship between perceiver and environment. The concept of affordance links environment and human behaviour, or opportunities for action, and is therefore of particular interest in understanding how the environment might encourage or support people to be more active—a primary goal of public health policy. This is an insight of key relevance to investigating human behaviour in the landscape. As Appleton has put it, more succinctly, for any individual considering their landscape context, it helps us understand “what’s in it for me?” (Appleton, 1975).

Key text

Appleton, J. (1975) The experience of landscape, New York, NY: John Wiley.

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