Look at any neighborhood park and you’ll likely see people strolling with their pooches, children frolicking on playground equipment, a young woman getting in her morning run before work, a family having a picnic around a BBQ grill.
What’s missing from many parks is what caught the eye of UCLA urban planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris: seniors.
While working on a well-received toolkit for implementing “parklets” — unused or underutilized parking spaces in urban areas that can be converted into micro public parks — Loukaitou-Sideris, along with Complete Streets Initiative program manager Madeline Brozen, noticed that seniors were one of the most underrepresented groups using public parks.
“There is a good reason for that, because neighborhood parks are typically not considered spaces for seniors,” Loukaitou-Sideris explained. While other countries, especially in Europe and Asia, have recognized a need to build parks that cater to the needs of an aging population, the U.S. has been late, focusing instead on playgrounds for children or recreational parks for youth and young adults.
So Loukaitou-Sideris and Brozen joined by their Luskin School of Public Affairs colleague Lené Levy-Storms, an associate dean and social welfare associate professor, are working on a project to provide parks for senior citizens.
“What we are trying to do with this project,” said Loukaitou-Sideris, “is, first of all, find knowledge from different fields about what an open space or public park for seniors should look like, how it should be different for different groups of seniors, incorporate some of the voices of senior citizens, create guidelines for future such spaces, and hopefully even apply this knowledge towards the creation of a park.”
Even more specifically, their research is geared toward developing parks for lower-income urban seniors, who might not have access to open areas and the recreational, social and health benefits these spaces have proven to provide.
Levy-Storms has been collaborating with St. Barnabas Senior Services, a Los Angeles-based agency that’s more than 100 years old, to get feedback on what seniors need and want in parks.
“It’s very rare that the senior community has had a voice in designing some of these spaces,” Loukaitou-Sideris said. “We are trying to get a lot of clues from the seniors themselves.”
Currently, a debate exists among researchers about what the best use of park space is for seniors.
Some recommend intergenerational playgrounds, in which seniors can interact with all age groups and not feel isolated. Others say there should be exclusive “seniors-only” settings in order for seniors to have a safe outdoor public space that they consider as their own. Still others recommend “parallel play,” distinct but adjacent facilities for seniors and the general public.
Loukaitou-Sideris notes that there isn’t really a right or wrong — the spaces, she said, should take into account what a community needs and wants in terms of their specific values and cultural characteristics.
For the group at St. Barnabas, for example, this means taking into account the age of the seniors, their diverse ethnic backgrounds and the culture of their specific Los Angeles neighborhood.
“One of the things people mistakenly think is that everybody over 65 is the same,” Levy-Storms said. “But seniors are not only diverse in terms of their ages, but also in terms of their functional, psychological and social needs.”
According to Brozen, a park for seniors might not look very different from a typical park, but little changes in detail make big differences to an older population. Walkways would be designed with seniors in mind (level pavement, gentle slopes), materials used to build the space might be different, shadier spaces should be included, and seating should have back support and be in plentiful supply.
The fieldwork, focus groups with seniors, interviews with agencies serving them and a review of relevant research from public health, design and gerontology are now complete. So the team is ready to start writing a guide for cities interested in building parks for the elderly. The challenge will be to provide a safe space where a group of seniors in downtown Los Angeles can experience more than just a patch of grass or a driveway. Funding for the research and guide comes from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, which also supported the successful parklets project.
The team has also collaborated with the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, which is raising the $1 million necessary to build a park near the St. Barnabas senior center. And while St. Barnabas is just a stone’s throw from famed MacArthur Park, the seniors have said it doesn’t work very well for their needs.
The research team’s goal is to meet these needs beautifully. In most senior-specific parks the team has seen, there are no real design considerations.
“In the photos it’s just a cluster of equipment fallen into space,” Loukaitou-Sideris said. “My design side rebels against that.”
This story was adapted from one that appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Luskin Forum, the magazine of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.