Landscapes of Longevity



Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, California | Asa Eslocker, Assoc. ASLA; Harriett Jameson, Assoc. ASLA | Graduate | Faculty Advisor: Michael Lee, PhD | University of Virginia


With 70 million Americans retiring over the next decade, it is essential for landscape architects to explore how we can more effectively design our communities to engender healthy aging. Equally important, politicians, executives, health-care professionals, and citizens need a medium for comprehending the vital links among our public places, daily routines, and holistic well-being.
Landscapes of Longevity investigates three landscapes of extraordinarily high life-expectancy—Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, California; through the narratives of the healthy seniors in them. Along with spatial documentation, students interviewed 60+ seniors and shadowed their routines to research and analyze the characteristics of these cultural landscapes where seniors live happy, healthy, and independently. The documentary film is a dynamic exploration of the potential of film and narrative - as research and communication tools - to speak to designers and general audiences of the fundamental connection between healthy public landscapes and a healthy public.


PURPOSE: In 2013, two graduate students in Landscape Architecture were awarded a travelling fellowship for a project entitled Landscapes of Longevity. They set out to examine three places of extraordinarily high longevity—Loma Linda, CA; the highlands of Sardinia, Italy; and Okinawa, Japan—to explore the relationship between place and well-being through a cultural landscapes framework. The research 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, they interviewed dozens of healthy seniors and filmed their daily rituals and routines. After returning to the U.S., the researchers partnered with academics across disciplines—i.e. public health sciences, medicine, architecture, and urban and environmental planning—to analyze and corroborate their fieldwork with pioneering research in these fields. Additionally, they synthesized this material with existing research connecting place and well-being, from the fields of anthropology, sociology, environmental science, and neuroscience. This synthesis is a critical precursor that can springboard the development of future guidelines and applications for landscape architects and urban planners.

MESSAGE: CULTURAL LANDSCAPES OF PREVENTATIVE HEALTH and HOLISTIC WELL-BEING The documentary film Landscapes of Longevity contends that preceding and existing practices of urban planning and design, as well as a disinvestment in public spaces, in the United States have shaped an obesogenic cultural landscape, detrimental to health and well-being. Therefore, contemporary designers and planners, as well as citizens, need to be bold in advocating for the design of public spaces that foster healthy routines and catalyze holistic well-being. This will include recognition of the agency of our environments in shaping psychological, spiritual, social, as well as physical health, and a shift towards preventative, rather than reactive public health practices in the creation of socially just, beautiful places that give people the opportunity to flourish.

METHOD: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF FILM IN LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE COMMUNICATION Film is significant to the discourse of landscape architecture not only because it is emerging as a dynamic medium of researching and representing the landscape. More significantly, it has the power to connect the critical work of landscape architecture to a universal audience, fostering an understanding of the inherent value of well-designed public spaces. As a research tool, the compression of time, space, and movement within film allows for a dynamic, four-dimensional understanding of the cultural landscape. Film enabled the researchers to capture the narratives seniors in their everyday landscapes—their personal stories, cultural myths, spatial practices, daily rituals, and sense of place—within the context of the public spaces they inhabit on a daily basis. For example, the use of a remote-control helicopter equipped with a GoPro camera enabled the researchers to seamlessly transition from the everyday human scale—a senior working in his garden—to the regional scale, revealing how that garden fits into a larger cultural matrix. As a dynamic mechanism for representation and communication, videography can reveal seemingly incoherent relationships between people and their environments and foster a powerful sense of empathy from the audience. Christophe Girot writes, “A landscape seen in a variety of speeds and motions introduces a strong sense of relativity to our understanding of the established identities” and “reveals the multifaceted complexity of our cultural environment.”

AUDIENCE: This film speaks to a diverse array of audiences—from the landscape architect to the medical practitioner, the local city council woman to members of her public constituency. For the landscape architect, it delivers a set of principles that can be incorporated into professional practice. For the medical practitioner, it offers new insights on the forces and factors that contribute to our current public health crises, such as chronic heart disease and diabetes, and advocates for a new, more comprehensive definition of “health.” Lastly, for politicians and citizens, the film connects our everyday environments with our holistic well-being, advocating that the investment in well-design public spaces is one of the most profound investments one can make for a thriving community and high quality of life.

DISTRIBUTION and IMPACT: In the fall of 2014, the feature length film Landscapes of Longevity premiered at the Virginia Film Festival to a sold-out audience of over 400 people. Since then, the researchers have been interviewed by several radio, television, and print news organizations, including one segment that aired nationally on NPR’s Morning Edition. Following the film festival, multiple screening events, in partnership with community organizations and university groups, have attracted a diverse array of audiences—from local politicians to college students. In addition to film screenings, the researchers have shared the work in over ten speaking engagements at conferences and symposia in the past two years. Lastly, and most importantly, panel discussions following the film have led to dynamic questions, debates, and discussions on the significance of our public landscapes, how they relate to our health, and how these ideas can be implemented in the design and planning of more healthy communities.

"Movement, exercise, and relationship to landscape hardwired to every aspect of life."

- 2015 Awards Jury


The Benjamin Howland Family
University of Virginia Center for Design & Health
Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA
Reuben Rainey, FASLA
Schaeffer Somers
Wendy Cohn