The ASA (American Society on Aging) Conference in San Francisco has come to an end. Tessa Ten Tuscher (clinical psychology), Howard Lau (industrial engineering) and I (Susi Stadler – architecture) collaborated on a workshop. The topic was how we can implement a human centered design approach to the complex issues of aging by stepping outside the confines of our disciplines and sharing common values and principles. The common principles we formulated were ‘Safety – Connection – Beauty’.
For me personally this collaboration proofed my old paradigm – thinking cross-disciplinary produces more innovative, more out-of-the box and more communicable results. I am grateful for this enriching experience.
Creating structures that invite other disciplines not only in the execution but also in the design and planning process is critical for the meaningful design and realization of ‘Life Long-, Age Friendly-, Livable Communities’ one of the big topics of the conference. This goes hand in hand with the notion of universal design and human centered design.
Even though they are defined slightly different and thus prioritize different solutions, they all share the understanding that how an environment is designed impacts the well being of its community and the individuals who live in it. Whereas the Atlanta region has chosen to go its own path with a commitment to being a ‘Life Long Community’, other cities have signed up to become members of advocacy groups such as the “WHO Global Network of Age-friendly Cities” or Partners for Livable Communities. Equally there are non-profits that promote human centered design such as the Institute of Human Centered Design or universal design such as the Center of Universal Design.
The concept of livable cities is not a new one and there are many shades and concepts out there. What is new is that more and more of the general public is becoming aware that many US cities are uni-functional and non-inclusive, i.e. they are designed for the convenience of commercial interest (such as malls) with an emphasis on private transportation. This awareness and interest is of course driven by the large group of people who are aging and who are realizing that the senior housing options their parents have been offered over the last years are mostly standardized, unsatisfactory and that their cities do not serve them well in their later stage of life. There is a great opportunity that this awareness could translate into a movement that would actually “loosen” up local zoning regulations which are often over-formulaic and prescriptive and do not promote design excellence but a certain imagery. There is also the danger that we continue to mistake imagery for substance and turn cities into livable malls instead of giving room for individual expression and some degree of ‘messiness’ and imperfection.
‘Being inclusive is a key component of the definition the WHO (World Health Organization ) is promoting for age-friendly cities. This of course also means that a city has to work for people of all different kind of financial means, different abilities, cultures etc. The fact that the WHO is promoting a definition of an age-friendly environment also means that the built environment is lifted out of the confines of urban planning and architecture, development and construction and connected to health.
What a chance there is for more human-centered, interdisciplinary or coordinated solutions by rethinking standard patterns and connecting the forces across disciplines and organizations. What a chance also for giving renewed importance to the basics of a livable community, such as good education for everybody and safety for everybody. These basic needs are at the bottom of the pyramid of values and are necessary to design for if we want to design sustainable solutions for values such as ‘social connectivity’ in a community.
What could be the vehicles, the institutions that could promote such thinking? What if our society supported creativity outside the know design community and gave design awards for social design, as has been done in the UK or promoted integrated solutions for certain areas of our society such as the age award in Switzerland. What if funding decisions mirrored cross-disciplinary solutions, such as looking at healthy homes as part of preventative health care?