Are parks alienating the aging population?

Today we're featuring a guest article from Emily Matlovich, writer for CADdetails' blog Design Ideas for the Built World

If you stroll through a park you’re likely to find a dog fetching a frisbee, children playing on the equipment, teenagers jogging with headphones, and families having picnics. What you're less likely to find is senior citizens.

For the first time in human history the amount of individuals aged 65 and older will surpass the population under the age of 5. To put this into further perspective, by the year 2050, a third of the U.S. population will be 65+. Despite urban planners' best efforts to accommodate this demographic phenomenon, many public spaces like parks are currently lacking age-friendly infrastructure. This means that seniors miss out on the physical and social benefits that parks can provide.

Indeed, there is a serious deficit of seniors going to the park. According to non-profit research organization the RAND Corporation, "While senior citizens represent 20 percent of the general population, they only constitute 4 percent of park users. Children, on the other hand, can claim 38 percent of park usage while making up 18 percent of the generation population."  Of course, some of this difference can be explained by the fact that visiting the park and playing on the playground are typical children's activities. But there's no reason a visit to the park shouldn't be just as normal for a senior. A few simple changes to parks could help attract older individuals.

Creating inclusive spaces for all age groups requires an understanding of the different needs that elderly people may have compared with the typical target demographic of a park: children and/or families. One easy solution to making a park more suitable for aging individuals is to provide plenty of seating options, not only within the park, but also en route to the park. Unlike younger children who can sit on the grass (or spend most of their time running around), elderly people need spots where they can sit and easily get up from. When choosing seating arrangements, consider a variety of seats that can accommodate small and large groups, let an individual sit alone, provide conversational opportunities, and lastly be moveable.

While having a variety of seating arrangements is great for a little relaxation time, it's also important to promote physical activity for individuals visiting the park. This can be achieved by including walking paths that have handrails and leveled ground, large flat grassy areas that can accommodate a variety of activities like yoga and tai chi, and low intensity exercise equipment to encourage active recreation.

Photo by Joe Mabel

Photo by Joe Mabel

Shaded areas are also critical for elders to enjoy the park on hot days. When mapping out shade, it’s important to not only include seating in shaded areas but also consider providing plenty of shade on paths to offer individuals protection from heat, humidity and sun exposure while walking. In addition to providing shade, it's essential to have pathways that can accommodate walkers, wheelchairs and mobility scooters. Accessible bathrooms and drinking fountains will also ensure a pleasant experience for seniors.

Most of these park enhancements are low cost, can be undertaken incrementally and will benefit all park users; not just seniors.

Ultimately, completing these sorts of adjustments to a park will not only help to meet the social and physical needs of senior citizens but also make the community more desirable as a whole. Seniors will find their neighborhood more accommodating and inviting as a place for physical and social activity, especially if the park is close enough that a visit doesn't require driving. Younger people may also be more drawn to a community with public spaces that serve seniors, because that means it's a community where they can "age in place" and won't be required to move when they themselves get older. In addition, a public space that appeals to seniors means multi-generational families can easily live close to one another or in the same household and have their needs met. (Check out Strong Towns' recent exploration of multi-generational housing options to learn more.)

So whether you're designing a park for the first time or realizing that a current one needs to be updated, with a little financial backing and a strategy, you can create a park that becomes a community.

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About the author

Emily Matlovich is the writer for CADdetails' blog Design Ideas for the Built World.  The blog aims to inspire ideas for design professionals and is your source of information about the latest cutting edge projects, innovative product designs, and updates on industry trends. It is an extension of CADdetails which is the leading provider of manufacturer-specific building product information, delivering high quality planning documents to architects, engineers, contractors, and other design industry professionals throughout North America. Their mission is to help bring design projects to life by connecting the AEC industry with high-quality CAD drawings3D models, BIM files, specifications, images, projects and related documents from reputable manufacturers across the continent. All of their digital content is available for download free of charge.