Making unfamiliar places more accessible to older people through age-friendly planning

Research from Kingston University has provided invaluable insight into how older people experience unfamiliar spaces.

The research has led to meaningful discussions on accessibility and benefits large numbers of older people.

Researchers at Kingston University, in collaboration with investigators from the University of Swansea, Anglia Ruskin University and Middlesex University, developed the Older People's Use of Unfamiliar Space (OPUS) project as part of UKRI's New Dynamics of Aging programme. OPUS integrated spatial data, geographic studies and film work carried out by Professor Nigel Walford (Professor of Applied GIS at Kingston), Edgar Samarasundera (former Lecturer in GIS and Human Geography at Kingston) and Dr Susan Pratt (former Associate Professor in Television and Video Technology at Kingston). Over 40 older individuals in an unfamiliar environment (Colchester) were participants in the OPUS study of accessibility, design quality and walkability.

Navigational aids

The study found that buildings and other landmarks of historical significance, especially those relevant to local culture, served as navigational aids for age-friendly urban design. Older people were helped by signage that indicated the distance and average walking time in town centres and near key transportation hubs. The research concluded that walkable built environments should include easy-to-navigate urban outdoor spaces that offer both psychological and physiological benefits.

The OPUS findings have generated widespread interest and have been incorporated into urban design policies across the UK and Europe, beginning with the local council in Colchester. The Better Town Centre Plan was developed after adopting OPUS as a planning guide in 2012.

Implementation by government

The OPUS study has since been adapted, featured and cited in various plans and policies like the Design Standards Space (2013) and the Council's Emerging Local Plan (2017-2033). In 2014, North Somerset Council published People with Dementia and the Physical Environment, an in-depth study of the issues that urban designers addressed to meet OPUS's recommendations. Age Cymru, a Welsh national charity working to improve the lives of older people, used OPUS's findings as a basis for their policy debate with the Welsh government in 2015.

The UK Government has also implemented the OPUS findings. Public Health England (PHE) addressed the 2014 national inactivity epidemic with their Everybody Active, Every Day guide to implementing and promoting physical activity. In 2016, PHE Lead Nazhut Ali used the OPUS findings to critique the barriers older people face regarding outdoor access.

Evidence for policymakers

OPUS was mentioned on media platforms when Guardian columnist Michele Hanson initiated a public dialogue based on the joint policy action handbook Age-Friendly environments in Europe, compiled by the European Commission's Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, and the WHO Regional Office for Europe. OPUS is frequently mentioned in this handbook, particularly when it comes to urban environments, belonging and sense of self. OPUS's results, which indicated that the urban environment could sometimes be a worrying environment, led to a broad public discussion.

Policymakers can use the OPUS evidence base and framework to transform unfamiliar environments into a source of comfort and familiarity for older people, ensuring that they can travel without any hesitation and feel at home no matter where they are.

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