How does the design of public spaces influence mental health? Could urban design reduce isolation and loneliness? Increase accessibility and mobility?
An Activity Municipal Interest according to Decree No. 58.086 in Rosario, Sante Fe, Argentina.
The life expectancy of the world population is increasing. It is expected that by 2050, the population over 60 years of age will double§. As of today, older adults represent 15% of the Argentine population, and it is estimated that by 2050 they will reach 25%.§
Currently, most cities are not prepared or designed to accommodate the physical limitations of older adults. As we age, our cognitive and executive functions are diminished and present a challenge to living independently.
Neuropsychiatric disorders represent 6.6% of total disability in older adults; 15% of adults aged 60 and over suffer from a mental disorder, radically impacting public spending on healthcare and treatment.§ Older people are the most likely to be affected by dementia, which is accelerated by reduced mental and physical stimulation, and loneliness. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the number of people living with the disease will be close to tripling by 2050, implying a high demand for public health services. §
At the same time, urban design unintentionally excludes the active participation of older adults. The shortage of ramps, well-lit spaces, and designed accessibility for older adults demonstrates that the isolation of older adults is not elective, but consequential of a lack of inclusive design and urban planning.
How can urban design reduce isolation and loneliness? How will we face the coming pandemic of mental illnesses resulting from long days of quarantine and loneliness? For older adults, it results in significantly longer periods of time in solitude. As a consequence, older adults become increasingly more prone to illnesses associated with poor mental health and a sedentary lifestyle.
Rosario is also its older adults has become a pilot and benchmark experience for the use of public spaces in the city for the elderly and people with reduced mobility. It has been recognized by the Municipality of Rosario as an Activity of Municipal Interest according to Decree No. 58.086.§
When we design our cities with urban equipment catered to our older populations, we create spaces promoting psychological well-being for all urban dwellers by promoting human contact and social interaction. Rosario is also its older adults is the placemaking project seeking to address these questions; this is a starting point in designing suitable spaces for our older adults.
The main objective of the intervention was to invite older people to have access and activities§ in the public spaces of the city according to their necessities. This was attended by more than 50 seniors from 20 to 80 years old. During the journey, we collected information through surveys and a “public whiteboard” where the participants and passerby could express their ideas about what needs a good public space. There were also card games, Jenga towers, darts, motor coordination and memory games. There was a whiteboard with space to write ideas on “how we imagine our city,” and books, snacks and drinks. Most importantly, there was easy access to chairs and tables for the older members where participants could enjoy a simple conversation.
All of these small activities in a green public space prevent cognitive deterioration and encourage light exercise and mental stimulation. These can help prevent the onset of dementia and manage symptoms, improving cognitive abilities, building physical strength, increasing confidence and independence, and reducing feelings of isolation. This intervention shows that environments can enhance social ties, produce adaptable spaces for interactive mental stimulation and community building.
The surveys§ were accessible to everyone who wanted to fill one out. The data released by the surveys showed a great interest in promoting quiet, accessible, and safe meeting spaces.
92.3% of respondents would return to participate in this type of event weekly, while 93.1% would go to places designed for adults, if available. 60% of respondents want to have outdoor events, like cinema, festivals, and art creation among others. 51% wished to have quiet spaces for meeting, and adults tours inside the city. This demonstrates the great interest of adults in participating in public space.
Spaces for having conversations, spaces without noise, places for chill and relaxed meetings with friends, include better accessibility for older adults, public events, level pedestrian crossings, sidewalks in good condition, and more benches and gaming tables among others.
The implementation of quarantine as a preventive measure for the spread of COVID-19 has generated anguish and frustration in many, causing, for some, emotional destabilization, which has brought along both physical and psychological symptoms. The reduction of physical activity and its negative implication for sleep quality, insomnia, and daytime sleepiness, has already been demonstrated in different investigations.§ Increased cognitive impairment due to having stopped carrying out cognitive stimulation activities such as workshops, gatherings, group therapies, volunteering, and associations, negatively affects emotional and mental states, indicating an increase in depressive symptoms and loneliness.§ Loneliness also increases the risk of sedentary lifestyle, cardiovascular disease, inadequate nutrition, and the risk of death.§ The quantity and quality of sleep can also be affected in people who suffer from loneliness, causing greater fatigue during the day.§
The pandemic has evidenced that human beings are social creatures. The loneliness and confinement that we feel during quarantine is part of an episode never collectively experienced by so much of humanity.
We should recognize that every detail in the physical composition of the built environment has the potential to deliver comfort, convenience, and connections to others. We have to create a state of mind.§
It is plainly important that public spaces conducive as meeting places and recreation are needed in the daily lives of citizens, as they allow for activities that decrease cognitive decline, but which also allow for social distancing. The value of active mobility, where safe social distancing can be achieved, has revealed serious problems in the design of sidewalks to avoid crowding. Adaptations have already begun: special hours have been established for the vulnerable population and bicycle paths have begun to propagate across cities as alternatives to safe and preventive mobility to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
These urban interventions in response to the pandemic further validate and emphasize the necessity of the findings of Rosario. As urban planners, we must begin to implement design changes in our cities to develop behavioural changes that can facilitate the activities of older adults.
This is just the beginning in designing suitable spaces for our older adults. When we complete our cities with urban equipment catering to our older populations, we create spaces promoting psychological well-being for all urban dwellers by promoting human contact and social interaction.