Throughout history, man has changed the environment so that what benefits it affords, makes life easier. Forming the core of social life and community wellbeing, public open spaces can provide a wealth of new and challenging venues for improving interpersonal relationships between different age groups. Because of the current practice of designing spaces that segregate people by age, finding safe and inviting places that support intergenerational exchange is difficult.
Supporting an intergenerational perspective that suggests similar youth and older adult psychological/developmental needs and motivations reflect mutually preferred settings for leisure activities and social exchange, this age-comparative environmental assessment study investigated the role that urban spaces such as plazas, malls, parks, and streets could play in positive intergenerational interactions. Specifically, whether the visual perceptions and preferences of pre-adolescent youth mirror or contradict those of active older adults, which factors are most important, and how these principles can be applied to public open space design.
Developed from environment and behavior research literature, an organizing framework of fifty-one salient variables including population groups, demographics, space images, conditional affordances, nature/culture comparatives, landscape settings, environment/behavior factors, perception modes, and space characteristics was utilized to collect, analyze, and interpret the separate responses of the cross-sectional youth and older adult sample groups.
Employing twenty-four representative scene samples of urban public open space color images selected through an expert judgment process and five environmental affordance criteria (safety/security, sense of belonging, multiple activities, differing physical abilities, and interpersonal engagement) to frame the questions, the survey collected affordance rankings, demographics, and from the photo-preference task, researcher-defined space types and participant-defined space characteristics. Content analyzed from the written reasons youth (n=45) and older adults (n=90) selected specific urban spaces, responsive attributes, operational features, and inferential qualities were categorized into sub-set clusters for analysis.
Statistically analyzed and presented in an age-comparative graphic format, the results provide strong evidence that youth and older adults perceive the physical environment in identical ways and prefer similar public open spaces.
Ranked first yet reflecting the complementarity of intergenerational spaces, safe environments were described by both ages as being well maintained, enclosed, quiet, private, and not-crowded and jointly unusual, interesting, open, lively, and full of people. Exhibiting reciprocity between many of the affordances, belonging was found to be inversely correlated with safety (as perception of environmental safety increased, the need for welcoming environments decreased). Though youth selected landscape park for safety and activity and courtyard for belonging and engagement and older adults selected courtyard for safety and garden for belonging, the results indicated that older adults generally preferred cultural (built) spaces and youth prefer naturalized spaces. And although both ages seemed to value spaces that were activity-oriented, the findings suggest that an intergenerational pair may consider a space’s ability to engage them aesthetically and psychologically rather than physically.
Defining the paired values of a hypothetical grand friend dyad and focusing on the connection between preferred space characteristics and selected space images, the results were further translated into specific design guidelines and urban spatial relationships (preferred activities, desired attributes, and graphic representations) that could be employed by integenerational program and shared-site administrators or urban planners and landscape architects to evaluate existing sites or to develop new age-integrative settings. Representing the desired social exchange restorative outcomes (calming, protecting, energizing), integenerationally supportive urban public open spaces should be safe and welcoming, encourage the presence of people, be open yet protective, include natural and man-made elements, provide for a variety of passive and active activities, and be restive and festive.