American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2006 Student Awards
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The Challenge of Change in the Public Lives of the Elderly Through Landscape Affordance
Mehran Madani, Associate ASLA
University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario
Faculty Advisor(s): John Danahy, Mary Jane Lovering, ASLA, and Talieh Ghane

"A great starting point that could have a huge impact on the lives of millions of elderly people trapped in suburbia. Very realistic, external, and urban."

— 2006 Student Awards Jury Comments

Those we call "elderly" present a great diversity of physical and mental abilities, preferences, and lifestyles. To design for older people requires an understanding of how the aging process can affect the way in which an older person perceives, interprets, and negotiates, the environment: it also demands an understanding of what it means to grow older in our society.


This research explorers possibilities for design of everyday community behavior settings and social environments that aim to make it easier for the elderly to do what they want to do, to live the way they want and make it possible to feel active and useful in their community.

The main idea was formed based on facts below:

The city's population continues to age:

The number of seniors has almost doubled in Toronto within the last 30 years.  

Seniors are the fastest growing age group (%14 of Toronto population) and the number of the elderly with no relatives is increasing (they should be institutionalized even against their will). 

My experience as a landscape designer in a geriatric home:

Familiar with physical and behavioral characteristics of the elderly and the capability of landscape architecture in changing the quality of their lives 

Isolated landscape of the institutions:

Evaluation of the existing relationship between the elderly residents' needs and the influencing factors of their physical surroundings 


A survey done by Inese Bite and Marry Jane Lovering (for 375 senior residents) shows %43 of non-programmed activities in Southern Ontario long term care homes are dedicated to sitting alone.

This is the issue:

Nothing to Do, Nothing to See

This research started with a valuable source of data as an ideal case study (Baycrest is along term care home model in terms of variety of the users, facilities, and researches which have been done). I talked to specialists in research department to get professional information about the elderly's psychology, and physical ability. Also I interviewed 5 and surveyed 25 residents (the original survey applications are brought in the data source panel) in the geriatric home that helped me to direct research proposition to design concept.  

Specialist source of information reveals:

  • The elderly want to remain active member of the society, if they have broken off relations with their families; they look for new people and a new community.
  • Life is dynamic; retirement does not mean just a period of leisure time. In the most of the geriatric homes, seniors are organized by various activities, programs and recreation facilities more then their previous lives by themselves, but they are not happy because they are not part of the public life, they are not part of the daily activity.    
  • Close look at the elderly reveals 3 categories of ability level and services in geriatric homes:

Dependent: can be in outdoor with other people's assistance or under supervision

Semi-Dependent: use outdoor with or without some device like stick, wheelchair, or walker

Independent: use outdoor without any assistance

User source of information (Interview and Survey) reveals:

  • To maximize the options for the elderly's daily life, design must respond to the changes in sensory processes, perception, and cognitive functions.
  • The elderly usually concentrate on movement from one place to another, rather than on how long the walk actually is (walking one block or two block - interview & survey base).
  • For the elderly, the main concern is safety and the quality of outdoor facilities.
  • Old people tend to congregate where other people are assembled that it occurs simply when a street with automobile traffic convert to a pedestrian street and they can renew the opportunity for hearing and seeing other people.  

Synthesis of the research for design 

In this research connection between the landscape architecture quality, the experience of attraction, and the use of outdoor facilities lead to setting up Demand Quality & Invitation Quality for the elderly to give them the feeling of living close to the public and not segregated or forgotten by the society. 

Demand quality serves the facilities and physical settings which are required for the elderly's safety and comfort. Invitation quality serves the programs, activities, and behavior settings to encourage the elderly to use outdoor as a space for daily activity.   

The design process focuses on Pedestrian Street (first urban element for socializing) as the best solution for integrating the elderly with their community in regard to the safety, comfort, and the feeling of being a part of daily life.

What kind of pedestrian street? 

The street structure should respond many of the elderly's needs:  need for easy access to both outdoor and indoor, as well as the need for security, social interaction, and well-organized street components for their comfort and satisfaction. 

What kind of layout and pattern?   

To create a walking network with interactive street patterns often we have the psychological effect of making the walking distance shorter. A length of 50 meters seems as a straight and dull path for  older people as well as long and tiring, while the same length can be experienced as a very short distance if route is perceived in stages (like different patterns, street components, design elements, and everyday activities).

In a survey in Copenhagen Denmark (by Jan Gehl), pedestrians were found to cross the squares and walking streets on diagonal. Another survey in Copenhagen Denmark (by Jan Gehl) shows winding or interrupted patterns make pedestrian movement more interesting, specially for older people winding horizontal patterns in company with functional vertical compositions give them a sense of short walking distances and place orientation.

Based on above researches, surveys and interviews I proposed to direct the design concept from serving Demand Quality and Invitation Quality (by walking street) to functional spaces and afford the sense of behavior setting. As a result major predictor of the interactive patterns (diagonal pattern) was formed to put functional distances and functional centralities on the paths of everyday activity patterns.   

Functional distance between buildings' facades and activities: refers to the degree of appeal in moving from one point to another.

Functional centrality of commonly used facilities: refers to the ease of access to common facilities for a group of people (decreasing physical distances).

Current design research is familiarizing itself with old people's way of living, thinking, and feeling and is offering a pedestrian street as a scope of urban component, landscape capability, and social interactions.  In this street the noise of cars is replaced by the sound of steps, voices, running water, and so forth. It is again possible to have a conversation, hear street music, people talking, children playing. Children can be seen playing outside a neighborhood where active families are living. This gives older people a view of life from their windows and encourages them to be a part of those activities. So they are still in the centre of community life and do not feel cut off from the public.

Through the following images and diagrams you will find further details to clarify research theme, design concept, and significance of results in the elderly's public lives. 


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