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Older people and the outdoors - overview of findings

Our research on older people has focused on people aged 65 years and over, taking account of the many differences between people in this age group.

This section presents a summary of the main research findings to date on older people's access outdoors. We shall be adding to this overview as new analysis reveals further insights.

Overview of findings

This section presents a summary of the main research findings to date on older people’s access outdoors. We shall be adding to this overview as new analysis reveals further insights.

For details of our approach to research on older people’s quality of life and access to the outdoor environment, go to How does the outdoor environment affect older people’s QoL?, Use of outdoor environments, Experiences of outdoor environments and What are the critical issues?

The overall aim of I’DGO has been to identify the most effective ways of ensuring the outdoor environment is designed inclusively to improve the quality of life (QOL) of older people. Until now, little has been known as to what particular attributes of the outdoors are relevant to older people’s QoL.

Our surveys of over 770 people aged 65+ across Britain, using innovative research concepts and methods, showed the importance of the outdoor environment in people’s lives. Older people go out into their local neighbourhood very frequently, regardless of season, and walking is very much the predominant form of transport. The three major reasons given for going out are: socialising, getting physical exercise and fresh air and contact with nature.

Analysis showed that pleasantness and safety of open spaces, and the distance to them, were significantly associated with participants’ satisfaction with life. A neighbourhood environment that makes it easy and enjoyable to go outdoors was a significant factor in whether participants attained recommended levels of physical activity through walking (regardless of any sensory or mobility impairment) and was a significant predictor of their health in general.

Findings on urban form and design showed that participants went out in their local area more frequently if the neighbourhood had either a fine grain mix of uses or was mainly residential. Participants’ evaluation of their QoL was higher in residential than in mixed-use neighbourhoods, with more positive perceptions of safety, air quality, and trustworthiness of neighbours. People in these areas also reported better health.

Participants living in low density areas were much more positive about their quality of life than those in higher density areas: older people in villages and small towns rated their QoL highest and those in major city/town centres lowest. The urban form features that can be beneficial regardless of location or density include small blocks, greenery, small setbacks of houses from street, and provision of facilities in residential areas.

In terms of detailed design, the following design features are important for older people: wide and flat tarmac footways; easy transition at level changes; unobstructed navigation; controlled crossing points; clear, simple, easily visible and understandable signage; frequent, warm, supportive seating; sufficient bus stops with weather protection and seating; and sufficient, well maintained, safe and open toilets.

When we looked at outdoor activity levels, good quality paths to local open spaces made a difference to the total time older people spent outdoors, as did good facilities in local open spaces and the presence of water. The most important aspects of local open space to participants were safety, having appropriate facilities, trees and plants and activities to watch, good maintenance, and no heavy traffic en route.

Current barriers to access in the environment

Findings from the physical audit of 200 residential environments identified many barriers prominent within a typical street environment, from narrow poorly maintained paving to very limited seating. A survey of designers revealed that they have limited knowledge of how to consider the needs of older people in the design of streets and neighbourhoods. Guidance is needed at all scales but particularly for the detailed design of residential and neighbourhood streets as opposed to town and city centres. Improving the quality of the outdoor environment can contribute to a better quality of life for many groups in society, not just older people.

I’DGO’s findings are being published in academic journals and in readily accessible formats, aimed at policy-makers and providers, designers, planners and managers engaged in the built environment and the public realm, so as to provide the foundation for improved, evidence-based policy and practice. The I’DGO website is being used to disseminate findings that anyone can access and find what interests them.

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I'DGO - Inclusive Design for Getting Outdoors. Last updated 8 November 2008

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