Connecting Research and Age-Friendly Design

At the Center for Architecture by • 06/08

The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was a key figure at the Center for Architecture on 05.31.16. Throughout “Connecting Research and Age-Friendly Design,” panelists and audience members referenced Peter Pan as a figure who is often present in how we design buildings and communities, as well as in how we think about ourselves. Though we would all like to believe we will never grow old, we cannot continue to design and build spaces that do not support an aging population. AARP New York Associate State Director Bill Armbruster led off his presentation by saying that he lives in a “Peter Pan house” – one that was not built with aging occupants in mind. The evening’s panelists offered their thoughts on how architects, planners, and designers can push for more inclusive physical and social environments that will accommodate our aging population.

Each speaker addressed a different scale of design, and the particular ways in which we can make age-friendly design work at multiple levels. Mildred Warner, City and Regional Planning professor at Cornell University, took the most macro view of the built environment. Drawing on a number of policy issues, Warner discussed barriers to age-friendly design at an urban scale, including zoning and building codes. Some key issues that are not recognized by outdated planning codes include allowances for accessory dwelling units (sometimes referred to as “granny flats”), increased affordable housing, need for complete streets, and allowance of mixed-use developments for greater ease of mobility.

However, the built environment is only one piece of age-friendly design. Warner, along with the other speakers, stressed that a strong social environment is just as important in creating cities, neighborhoods, and spaces that serve the needs of elderly populations. She noted that government action is often needed to take the first steps towards implementing age-friendly design, and that public-sector planning policies can motivate the private sector to provide services that will complement a more accessible built environment. She also pointed out that planners and designers tend to be biased towards dense, urban areas as the best solution for age-friendly design, warning that we cannot leave behind or dismiss suburban and rural communities, which tend to be poorer and will not be improved simply by attempting to transfer a New Urbanist template onto their physical environments.

On the neighborhood scale, Armbruster shared AARP’s Livability Index, an online tool that scores communities based on factors that are integral to the organization’s definition of a livable community: “one that is safe and secure, has affordable and appropriate housing options, and offers supportive community features and services.” He emphasized the importance of connectivity; it is not just where we live that matters, but how easily we can get to other places we need to be. Though it seems New York City may be an ideal place for an aging population in this respect, Armbruster shared that recent surveys have actually shown that a large portion of the city’s working population under 65 plans to move away when they get older. The way to allow people to age in place, Armbruster says, is to take a holistic approach to community health, using a multifaceted set of policies that encourage cross-sector collaboration. He spoke about the need to educate policymakers and decision makers at all levels, and to measure livability by metrics that can be influenced by state and local policymakers.

Finally, Jeff Rosenfeld, an environmental gerontologist at Parsons the New School for Design, took us to interior spaces, and how the home can be better designed for safety for seniors. Rosenfeld worked with 67 senior patients at New York Methodist Hospital in Park Slope, all of whom were 75 or older and had sustained a serious fall in their homes. He interviewed them about their falls and any measures they had taken to prevent injuries in the home, discovering some key findings that may help improve safe home design. For example, most features to prevent falls focus on tripping or slipping, but almost half of the patients had fallen off of a ladder or stepstool or were injured by an object falling on them. In addition, 9% of the falls had taken place in common areas of apartment buildings, such as lobbies and laundry rooms. Taking into account the multiple causes of falls, as well as urging landlords to consider age-friendly design in common spaces, could do more to reduce injuries and make home design safer.

Rosenfeld believes the benefits of his findings are threefold: new opportunities for designers; awareness of safety in new locations in the home; and a demonstrated need for more designer-senior partnerships. He cited John Marsden’s 2005 book Humanistic Design as an example of this type of collaborative design approach. Despite these promising findings, Rosenfeld did stress that much of the progress will depend on seniors actively embracing these improvements and recognizing the need to make changes to prevent injury.

Moderator Lorraine Hiatt, also an environmental gerontologist, led a panel and audience discussion where participants mentioned a number of additional measures that can contribute to age-friendly design. These included sensors or cameras that can alert caretakers of falls or other activity in a senior’s home. There was also discussion of cognitive factors and memory and how we can offer incentives to developers to promote designs for the elderly. The discussion again reminded us how far-reaching the effects of age-friendly design can – and should – be, and how many parties will need to work together to make it a reality. The event offered many hopeful perspectives on how our physical and social environments can be more accessible to aging populations. If we can’t be Peter Pan, it is reassuring to know how many professionals are dedicated to creating spaces that will work for us when we do grow up.

Event: Connecting Research and Age-Friendly Design
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.31.16
Speakers: Speakers: Bill Armbruster, Associate State Director, AARP New York; Jeff Rosenfeld, Environmental Gerontologist, Parsons School of Design; Mildred Warner, Professor of City and Regional Planning, Cornell University; Lorraine G. Hiatt, Environmental Gerontologist (moderator)
Organized by: AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee and AIANY Design for Aging Committee

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