Designing Intergenerational Communities

Islands of Activity

The organization and design of cities, towns and communities privilege and support certain social groups and marginalize others [1]. Over the course of the last half of the twenty-first century, dominant planning ideologies have prioritized communication and transportation infrastructure for industry. The traditional function of city space as a meeting place for people has been minimized, threatened or phased out resulting in urban life becoming increasingly isolated and segregated [2].

The development of car-centric cities have contributed to spaces such as city centres that are “relatively inaccessible or unwelcoming to people of particular life stages” [3]. Moreover, car-centric cities have intensified a process of “insurlarisation” [4], creating a growing separation between places built to meet people's needs. For adults, if walking between these “islands of activity” [5], is too dangerous or distances too long, driving between destinations may be an option. Private car travel however, is a luxury for those who can afford, can access, are capable and choose to drive. Accordingly, older adults “tend to travel outside their own neighborhoods less often than do younger adults” [6]. The situation is also alarming for children as they are dependent on adults for most of their movement travelling in a car-centric city. 

George Monbiot wrote in the ARUP report, Cities Alive: Designing for Urban Childhoods, “If children are not designed into our cities, they are designed out...” [7]. We take the stance that this is equally true for elders. Planning and design decisions that do not take into account the needs of elders and children result in both groups being ‘designed out’ of cities and segregated from each other.

"Planning and design decisions that do not take into account the needs of elders and children result in both groups being ‘designed out’ of cities and segregated from each other."
Age-Segregation

The segregation of both elders and children amplified by restricted mobility, makes participating in social life difficult [8-9]. Manchester and Facer [10] identify “over the last couple of decades intergenerational interaction in public spaces has diminished and positive contact reduced as children and older adults alike are encouraged to live and spend time in age-segregated spaces” (p.5). Physical barriers wall off generations from one another [11], seen for example, by tall fences around children’s play areas and schools [12], and gated retirement communities purposefully isolated to include essentials to live, shop, learn, and exercise [13]. Cumulatively, restricted mobility and isolation can result in limited opportunities to form stable cross-age relationships.

Children and elders segregated along generational lines also contributes to ageism, described as a “feeling, belief, or behavior in response to an individual’s or group’s perceived chronological age” [14]. For elders, ageism can result in others devaluing the contributions they can make, leading to feelings of worthlessness, a sense of being burdensome, and a belief that they have little value. This can make elders vulnerable to a range of negative health and social outcomes. When exposed to negative age stereotypes elders can experience negative effects on their functioning across different domains such as mental capabilities [16] physical health [17], and even their will to live [18]. 

Helen Manchester and Keri Facer challenge us to reconsider the segregation of elders and children in our cities as simply normal. They argue “there is nothing inevitable about a future of older adults shut away in care homes and children garrisoned in schools with no chance of interaction between them outside of the family home” [19]. It’s time to think differently about how generations interact, ways in which they can build relationships and if desired address local challenges.

Common Challenges

Throughout the world, there has been growing interest in child-friendly cities [20-22] and growing advocacy for age-friendly cities [23-27]. Both the Age Friendly City movement (AFC) (led by the World Health Organisation) and the Child Friendly Cities (CFC) movement (led by UNICEF) are important for the advocacy of places that are more inclusive of people at the either end of the life spectrum. Intergenerational Education scholar Dr. Rachel Heydon aptly refers to these life stages as the ‘ends of life’ [28]. While both the AFC and the CFC movements aim to ensure the needs and interests each age group are accounted for in current policy and design processes, both movements risk segregating children and adults.

Not all cities are the same, and segregation of elders and children is more prevalent in some corners of the world than others. Moreover, even in the same city, the design of some neighbourhoods may facilitate intergenerational contact over others. While some elders and young children may experience restricted mobility others may not. Despite these differences, what is important to remember is that there is no universal experiences for a 'child' or 'older adult', and what it means to belong to either age group can change over time. As Facer, Horner, and Manchester suggest, “In advocating for children and older adults separately they ignore the fact that these groups often live alongside each other, occupy the same public spaces, and have interests and needs in common” [29]. Each population group has unique requirements, however, an all-ages cities approach can identify areas of overlap and shared challenges to target.

Figure 1: Overlap of Needs Between the Child Friendly and Age Friendly City (adapted from Manchester & Facer 2016 and van Vliet, 2011).
Intergenerational Contact Zones (ICZ)

Evidence indicates bringing people together across generations can have a significant impact on social relationships, their sense of fulfillment, arts and recreation pursuits, knowledge and skills, health, and level of civic involvement [30]. (For more information on the benefit of intergenerational sites see here). For built environment professionals the term ‘Intergenerational Contact Zone’ (ICZ) may be a useful conceptual, programming, and design tool. The term was first coined by Leng Leng Thang [31] for a book on Intergenerational Spaces, edited by Vanderbeck and Worth. The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing defines IGZ as:

“spatial focal points for different generations to meet, interact, build relationships (e.g., trust and friendships), and, if desired, work together to address issues of local concern. They can be found in all types of community settings including schools, parks, taverns, reading rooms, clubhouses, museums, community gardens, environmental education centers, and multi-service community centers." [32]

In 2015, a multidisciplinary group of 13 scholars and practitioners met at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing [33]. Through discussions and inquiry on the topic of ICZ they suggested that the concept of ICZ’s can enhance intergenerational spaces. Their findings were ICZ as a conceptual framework can serve several functions, including as a:

  • conceptual tool - for studying complex, multi-generational community settings.
  • programming tool - for broadening the range of intergenerational activity possibilities.
  • design tool - for generating innovative ideas for developing intergenerational meeting spaces.
The concept of Intergenerational Contact Zones was integrated into the Playful Pathways project by Design Outsider as a conceptual design and programming tool. To watch an abbreviated version of the design process see here.

We also need to keep open the possibility of intergenerational contact across time and space. Consider, when different age groups visit the same location over different times. Mannion considers “participation in a community allotment, or participating in an a-synchronous on-line blog. In these cases, activities need not be concurrently shared to be viable intergenerational [activities]. The interesting finding here is that almost any place, such as a town, a park, or an on-line website, can be [intergenerationally] and reciprocally ‘shared’ with or without physical multigenerational co-presence” [34]. As another example for a virtual setting, Historypin’, enables community members to share memories of local places. Digital tools can be conceptualized as important places of learning about place, and a means to engage people across generations in plans for future development. 

ICZ Design Principles

A multidisciplinary group of practitioners from the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing (previously mentioned above) also developed a recommended six design principles for Intergenerational Contact Zones (choice, visibility, addition, meaningfulness, diversity in scale, and tradition and modernity can coexist).

 Six Design Principles for Intergenerational Contact Zones (University of Oxford. The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, 2005)[35]

While design principles may provide a useful guide, when designing for and with both children and elders, we cannot make assumptions about their needs, including their social and cultural circumstances. The concept of ICZ opens up further questions such as: where does interaction happen and are there programmed activities that facilitate this interaction? If there is programming, who is responsible and is it sustained over time? We also need to ask challenging questions such as who has access to intergenerational contact, who does not - and why? (For more on Intergenerational Contact Zones see here).

Policy Recommendations

So what can be done to accelerate the adoption of shared sites and interaction between generations? Following a review of efforts underway to create spaces and resources that are shared by multiple generations, Donna M. Butts, Executive Director, Generations United suggests these key policy recommendations:

  • Encourage national and local leaders to adopt an age integrated approach to community and urban planning and commit dollars to support the effort.
  • Create an intergenerational council, ministry or task force charged with conducting an intergenerational environmental scan designed to determine what intergenerational programs exist and where the prime opportunities reside.
  • Identify barriers, enablers and potential policy solutions to advance intergenerational shared sites.
  • Build new alliances between ageing, children and youth sectors to support intergenerational shared sites that build inclusive societies and support families and communities to promote integrated, efficient and responsive support and opportunities for all.
  • Commit to country-wide and local goals and action plans to reach the goal of establishing a certain number of intergenerational shared sites within a specific time period.
  • Establish and grow the international learning community or collaborative for intergenerational shared site practice and research. [36]
Conclusion 

We can design a future where intergenerational contact occurs throughout our cities from schools, museums, public spaces and online. The world is rapidly changing and our preconceived ideas about what is possible must be challenged. As Manchester and Facer identify “digital, medical and transport technologies as well as economic and environmental drivers are likely to bring significant changes in the next fifty years. In the context of these trends it is vital that we begin to question the ‘taken for granted’ assumptions around the rhetoric of generational clash and begin to work together towards a new multigenerational vision of the future city” [37]. With accelerated change around the world (amplified by the pandemic experience) how can we expand intergenerational contact zones and opportunities for elders and young children to participate in public life? Concepts such as Intergenerational Contact Zones and All-Age Friendly Cities may be useful tools to identify where places of convergence may be located in our cities and communities (both physical or digital) and support facilitation through targeted policy or design decisions. We must remain open to new possibilities for thinking differently about intergenerational contact to enhance the well-being of both young children and elders.

Additional Resources
  • Intergenerational sites: new trends in urban planning, global trends and good practices from the US and beyond (Butts, 2018) https://www.un.org/development/desa/family/wp-content/uploads/sites/23/2018/05/2.pdf
  • Intergenerational Contact Zones Place-based Strategies for Promoting Social Inclusion and Belonging (Kaplan et al. 2020). https://www.routledge.com/Intergenerational-Contact-Zones-Place-based-Strategies-for-Promoting-Social/Kaplan-Thang-Sanchez-Hoffman/p/book/9780367189037
  • A Manifesto for All-Age Friendly Cities (Manchester & Facer, 2016) https://edgesf.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/aaf-cities-working-paper-2-2016.pdf
  • Creating Livable Cities for All Ages: Intergenerational Strategies and Initiatives (van Vliet, 2009) https://www.colorado.edu/cedar/sites/default/files/attached-files/CYE-WP1-2009%20website%20verson.pdf
  • The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing: Intergenerational Contact Zones. What and Why? (2015) https://www.ageing.ox.ac.uk/blog/2015-intergenerational-contact-zones-blog
  • 8 80 Cities https://www.880cities.org/
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