An award-winning research project provided the first UK evidence for links between access to outdoor environments and better health and quality of life in old age.
By 2050, there will be 2 billion people in the world aged 60 or over. Older people who don’t find it easy or enjoyable to get outdoors can spiral into poor physical health, less social contact and a reduced quality of life overall. This increases demand on health and social care services.
Little research had explored the relationship between good outdoor access for older people and healthier and more active quality of life into old age. In 2003, the Inclusive Design for Getting Outdoors (I’DGO) project was established. This research project, directed by Professor Catharine Ward Thompson, has provided evidence that maintaining health in an ageing population is related to easy and enjoyable access to outdoor environments.
The I’DGO research showed which aspects of environmental design support walking for leisure and pleasure as opposed to walking for transport. This is a key distinction for understanding physical activity in old age. It also indicated what qualities of the local environment predict whether older people achieve recommended healthy levels of physical activity, and what aspects are associated with quality of life.
I’DGO gathered information through questionnaire surveys, focus groups, activity diaries, street audits, and behavioural observation. In the first project phase, researchers surveyed older people about their wellbeing and quality of life, how often and why they went outdoors, and what features of their neighbourhood helped or hindered activity. Among other insights, the research found that if older participants lived in a ‘supportive’ environment, for example, if their neighbourhood had good quality footpaths to their local open space, they were twice as likely to achieve recommended levels of physical activity.
The second phase of the research project was called I’DGO TOO. This phase focused on current policy and practice, for instance with regard to urban street design guidance. These had not yet been tested for age-friendliness. The researchers focused on assessing the impact of interventions to make streets more pedestrian friendly. They found that measures to make streets less car-centric improved older people’s perception of usability and safety. However, such changes did not have much impact on their wellbeing, social engagement and quality of life.
The project’s findings have been presented in the parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These findings have been used to influence policy making and planning for healthy environments. The Department for Communities and Local Government has drawn on I’DGO’s research. It has also been cited in design guidance by a number of international bodies, including the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The researchers worked closely with strategists developing the WHO age-friendly cities of Edinburgh and Manchester. They have also advised the Cabinet Office of Japan on its FutureCity initiative, and worked with the EU-funded ‘Safer Mobility for Elderly Road Users’ project. Ward Thompson has also advised on environmental implications of research as part of the City of Vancouver’s Walk the Talk initiative.
Worldwide, I’DGO’s findings have been used in training for over 1,000 professionals. In the UK alone, it has been used to train over 500 planners and highway engineers. At a training workshop on Walking and Traffic Safety in an Ageing Society in Spain, Ward Thompson’s I’DGO presentation was rated the ‘best and most useful’ out of all presentations given.
Empowering older people
I’DGO’s approach has always been to enable older people to create impact on their own terms. The project has been proactive in the Age Scotland campaign, Walk in our Shoes; Act on our Issues. It has also been promoted by Age UK in its Pride of Place campaign. I’DGO hosted a public event at the British Science Festival in 2012, in which an 82-year old Edinburgh resident debated age-friendly neighbourhood design with speakers from Age Scotland, Anderson Bell Architects, and a former MSP.