A Spatial Analysis of the Uncharted Territory of Growing Old


Harriett Jameson, Associate ASLA; Asa Eslocker, Associate ASLA | Graduate | Faculty Advisors: Michael Lee | University of Virginia | Charlottesville, VA


This research explores the link between healthy longevity and place attachment in regions of extraordinarily high longevity. Building off of on-site interviews from a previous project, I spatialized and tested themes gleaned on-site; synthesized them among existing interdisciplinary work in the fields of public health, social sciences and cultural geography; and developed a set of design principles for public landscapes that can foster cultures of health and holistic well-being. This synthesis is a critical precursor that can springboard the development of future guidelines and applications for landscape architects and urban planners.


I. US Aging Imperative & Research Premise

In the United States, seniors are the fastest growing segment of the population. By 2030, their population will double, to 72 million people, or 20% of the U.S. Over two-thirds of them live with multiple chronic conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or depression. Currently, the U.S. spends much more money on healthcare than any other country in the world, and with these sobering statistics, the situation is only going to get worse.

A thesis for action is based on two premises. 1) public landscapes in the United States should be rethought and redesigned to cultivate a culture of wellbeing from infancy through old age, in order to reduce the impacts of chronic disease that will face future generations and 2) a strong connection to a cultural landscape can catalyze both the communal ties and personal spatial practices, habits, and rituals that foster increased mental and physical health. Landscape architecture, as a powerful medium of intervention, can be used to transform current vernacular landscapes into public spaces designed for this objective. This will require innovative interventions that work with, and are not trumped by, patterns of increased transience, spatialities of retirement and aging, and globalization in our society.

Currently, landscape’s effect on longevity is only studied and understood tangentially to other scientific measures that affect the body, such as indigenous diets and nutrition, work and recreation habits, and time spent outdoors. However, experientially, landscape shapes wellbeing through the cultivation of place attachment and place identity. Therefore, a more holistic conception of the power of cultural landscapes on longevity should incorporate both its physiological impacts on the human body and the psychological and emotional effects formed through lived experience.

II. Foundational Research in the Landscapes of Longevity

Last summer, a colleague and I were awarded a travelling fellowship to examine three places of extraordinarily high longevity—Loma Linda, CA; the Ogliastra region of Sardinia; and Okinawa, Japan—to explore the relationship between place and well-being through a cultural landscapes framework.

We sought to understand seniors’ connections to their daily places and the characteristics they personally believed contributed to their longevity. Using the concept of narrative ethnography, we interviewed dozens of healthy seniors and filmed their daily rituals and routines. Back home, we worked with a public health graduate student and a health sciences research librarian to corroborate this material with existing research in the fields of anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, psychology, public health, and medicine. We are currently working to synthesize these narratives and our fieldwork into a documentary.

Building from this fieldwork, the contribution of my thesis was to rigorously investigate these three places, spatialize and test the themes gleaned through on-site interviews, synthesize them among existing interdisciplinary work, and develop a set of design principles for public landscapes that can foster cultures of health and holistic well-being. This synthesis is a critical precursor that can springboard the development of future guidelines and applications for landscape architects and urban planners.

My analysis is organized around 12 principles that are critical for places to foster holistic well-being. The first 5 are person-centered and focus on generating place attachment. 6-9 emphasize designing for place identity, building on the natural and cultural identity of place. The last 3 principles center on shifting paradigms, reframing the ways we think of concepts such as play, accessibility, amd multi-modal connections.

III. Person-Centered Principles

1.Interactive Biophilia
The Biophilia Hypothesis argues that because humans evolved out of savannah landscapes and forests, we receive psychological benefits from being in places that remind us of it. In design, this has been translated and over-simplified into views of trees, landscape paintings, and office plants. However, our ancestors had a much more interactive and symbiotic relationship with nature than the current Biophilia Hypothesis suggests, including foraging, farming, hunting, and fishing. A dynamic relationship with nature was found in all three sites we visited—from Loma Linda where every person we interviewed cultivate citrus trees and weeded vegetables, to Sardinia where seniors harvest and forage over 78 plants for medicinal purposes, to Okinawa where certain trees, geologic, and hydrologic forms have spiritual significance.

In all three sites, this interactive engagement with nature was multi-scalar—home, neighborhood, and community level. It was manifest in the material of public places. There were various examples of it within the same public space—that engaged different psychological associations, spiritual significances, or muscle groups. This dynamic and symbiotic relationship between humans and nature contributed to both their place attachment and their physical health.

2. Embrace a performative, multi-sensory aesthetic
We are living in a world of increased sensory impoverishment, especially for seniors who are displaced to sterile nursing homes and hospitals. This situation presents a double-edged sword where, through relocation, seniors experience the psycho-emotional effects of place detachment; yet, they cannot heal because their new environment does not provide adequate stimulus to encourage positive attachment to place.

In Loma Linda, multi-sensory experiences were the foundation of positive place attachments. Several seniors mentioned the seasonal smells of orange blossoms, magnolia, and rosemary; the texture of eucalyptus and cactus; and the bright colors of jacaranda, olive tree, and lilac, they enjoyed while walking in their neighborhoods. In addition, they cited the pleasant breezes, views of the mountains, and colors of the sunsets as contributing to the pleasant experiences of their walks.

To foster healthy routines and engagement with place, the environment must be rich and inviting. It should engage all the senses and faculties, encouraging the perception, reflection, and questioning of environmental processes and urban patterns and flows. Beth Meyer argued for this design aesthetic in her manifesto Sustaining Beauty. She quotes the landscape architect Anne Spirn: “This is an aesthetic that celebrates motion and change, that encompasses dynamic processes, rather than static objects…This aesthetic engages all the senses, not just sight, but sound, smell, touch, and taste as well.”

3. Choreograph the haptic & kinetic senses
surprising moments within recognizable structure, we can engage people in place realization through their daily habits and routines. As a starting point, New York City’s Active Design Guidelines suggest 5 D variables for active movement: density, diversity, design, destination accessibility, and distance to transit. All of these were found in our sites, excepting distance to transit. However, Lawrence Halprin took it a step further arguing: “the job of the landscape architect is to provide constantly pleasing movement patterns such that our lives can be given the continuous sense of dance.” In Okinawa, recognizable patterns and forms were juxtaposed with hidden thresholds, a traditional Japanese method, to entice people to move through the space and create surprise.

4. Cultivate sense of purpose
The ability to maintain sense of purpose is integral to a senior’s well-being and gives him an ikigai, or reason for getting up in the morning. In our sites, sense of purpose was found primarily in responsibility to someone or something else—such as a volunteer or work position, a pet, friends, a grandchild, or garden plants that need to be watered. In order to support sense of purpose, these landscapes allowed seniors to continue meaningful activities, such as working and volunteering, in a way that was accessible to them—not dependent on driving—and adaptable as they transition to new stages. Additionally, public landscapes and streetscapes should be designed to foster healthy activities with pets that can act as a catalyst for new friendships for older adults who might have a difficult time forming new relationships.

5. Nurture Sense of Empowerment
In Okinawa and Ogliastra, we found spatial structures that work with safety and security to promote empowerment and independence. First, in each place, there was a mediating threshold between public and private space, similar to the idea of a front-porch. The front porch enables vulnerability without risk, encouraging one to simultaneously linger in both spheres, public (exposed) and private (protected). In Okinawa, small, one story houses are surrounded by low-walls—only 2.5-3 feet tall—so that passing neighbors can easily see into someone’s house and know if he is up and going. This ability for someone to “check-in” enables security and independence, as well as a spur not to sleep too late. Seniors can live functionally by themselves, without ever having the vulnerable emotion of being alone.

IV. Principles of Place Identity

6. Reinforce circadian rhythms
Aging adults often suffer from erratic sleep and cognitive decline. This could be due to not enough blue light—the kind of light that comes from the sun—either because they are indoors too much, or cataracts can block it. Sunlight has beneficial effects on sleep, well-being, performance, & brain responses. In our sites, we found daily patterns influenced by circadian rhythms. In Loma Linda, the entire town closes on the Sabbath, fostering a day of rest and recreation. Likewise, in Sardinia, seniors gather in the piazzas in the late afternoon, when the oppressive sun has waned. And in Okinawa, seaweed foraging is tied to the lunar calendar. One way to design for holistic well-being is to investigate & analyze circadian rhythms of people in a place; and work to optimize these rhythms through place design.

7. Build upon the sacred structure
This can be accomplished by building upon the pattern of the places that community members most value and are most deeply attached. Randy Hester writes: “the sacred structure of most communities comprises a center of community life, a natural boundary and distinctive place characteristics that define that community.” In mapping sacred structures of our sites, we found most often, significant social places emerge from natural resources and their related rituals. In Sardinia, piazzas were constructed at the emergence points of springs. Over time, the place to gather water evolved into the cultural center of village life. Building upon the sacred structure—existing meaningful relationships, rituals, and places and life patterns— helps designers understand what is essential to the community and connect its people to the place.

8. Amplify Roots of the Cultural Landscape
The philosopher Simone Weil said that: “to be rooted is the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” In contrast, being up-rooted, detached from place, leads to severe psychological and health consequences—stress-disorder, anxiety, and depression. This raises questions about our cultural system of retirement in Phoenix and Florida, seniors-only developments, or nursing homes. One way that place attachment can be maintained—even when someone is displaced—is through materiality, incorporating features reminiscent of the homeland, in place design. This could be through the use of native plants, indigenous materials such as stone, wood, or shells, or cultural symbols like the Okinawan shiza. Additionally, our sites preserved traces of their historical pasts in the urban form, proven to catalyze stronger place attachment.

V. Reframing Paradigms

9. Embrace Play
Many seniors desire to stay in the mainstream of life and feel belonging in their communities. Thus, a design goal should be designing responsive environments conducive to intergenerational interaction. One way this can be accomplished is through designing for play. In the landscapes of longevity, we often found seniors playing in central public places. For example, in Okinawa, they would meet daily at the village center for a game of croquet. In Sardinia, older men would joke with one another and tell stories at Piazza San Rocco every afternoon. Upon further research, we found that play has many of the same attributes as “quality of life” and catalyzes freedom, enjoyment, and fulfillment.

10. Create Connections
Importantly, in our three sites, seniors were not relegated to suburban style developments, but lived in the community. While the street networks were more dense than what we see in a typical US city, the density of pedestrian intersections was even more striking—99 per quarter mile in one town in Okinawa versus 46 in downtown Charlottesville, VA, a typical contemporary downtown in the US. This was created by several methods—Okinawa and Sardinia had active alley networks and in Loma Linda, the university campus at the town center is used as a commons, where people feel free to move through it. Additionally, road hierarchy was important. In these places, the roads nearest centers are pedestrian oriented, where someone would feel comfortable walking in the middle of the road, and car dominated roads are relegated to the periphery. For example, in Charlottesville’s center, 55% of intersections within ½ mile are car dominant, while in Loma Linda 14% are, and in Shioya, 6%.

11.Foster Spiritual Health
Lastly, spirituality played a significant role in the health of seniors in the three sites we visited. In Sardinia and Okinawa, these were often landscape anomalies, such as waterfalls or mountain-tops at the edge of villages that could foster meditation and attention restoration through serene views. In Loma Linda, seniors noted spiritually significant spots—which they called “thin places”—along their daily routes where the barrier to heaven or transcendence seemed to dissolve. Spiritual places can foster physical and mental healing, and activate reward centers in the brain that release serotonin and cortisol. Elevated and out-of-the-way meditation spots can be places of intentional pilgrimage. Likewise, small gardens or places of refuge along daily routes can provide needed moments of restoration and centeredness.

12. Redefine Accessibility and Universal Design
People are disabled by their environment, not by impairment itself. Unfortunately, the current paradigm of universal design focuses on “designing for disability,” at the expense of enabling people by fostering well-being. We eliminate stairs for elevators and escalators—rather than thinking about how those stairs could catalyze health, preventing some of the disabling diseases of our society. In the landscapes of longevity, seniors were enabled by their environments. In Ogliastra, we met several seniors who daily ascend four flights of stairs, independently. Stairs correlate very well with their longevity, and not just because it strengthens bones and muscles—But also, navigating the difficult terrain, incorporates use of cognitive reflexes, linked to the prevention of dementia.

To design enabling environments, we must at first acknowledge constraints but then work with them and push their boundaries. One way this can be accomplished is simply by having both stairs AND elevators, while designing stairs to be attractive, safe, and easily ascended. Secondly, designing enabling environments means designing simply, rather than focusing on being “all things to all people.” Simplicity can actually make a design and place “more accessible because simple is often more cognitively and culturally inclusive.” Lastly, we must intentionally design them, going beyond the functional imperative of universal design.

VI. Conclusion

In the coming decades, it will become increasingly critical for landscape architects and urban planners to understand how design can foster preventative health and holistic well-being. Principles based on place attachment, place identity, and shifting paradigms of accessibility can provide a foundation for this. It is my hope that this synthesis is a precursor that can springboard the development of future guidelines and applications for landscape architects and urban planners.

"This beautifully presented research tackles an issue not often represented and not well documented in the profession: human longevity and its relationship to the physical qualities of our environment. The research methodology was clearly articulated and the recommendations are directly applicable to practice."

- 2014 Awards Jury



University of Virginia, School of Architecture
Kim Tanzer, Dean
Schaeffer Somers

University of Virginia Department of Landscape Architecture
Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA
Reuben Rainey, FASLA

University of Virginia Center for Design and Health
Wendy Cohn
Karen Knight

University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences Center
Jillian Regan

University of Virginia Center for International Studies

Additional Support

Benjamin Howland Family
Jefferson Area Board for Aging