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Parks and open spaces
Design findings and recommendations

  1. Introduction
  2. Time spent outdoors and outdoor activities
  3. Neighbourhood open space and quality of life
  4. Preferences for environmental attributes
  5. Observational study of use of open spaces
  6. Landscape typologies, spatial experiences and design recommendations

1. Introduction

The design guidance on neighbourhood parks and open spaces is based on OPENspace’s two cross-sectional surveys of older people, nine on-site behavioural observations and five accompanied visits to local open spaces with older people (for details see Research Methods and Tools).

2. Time spent outdoors and outdoor activities

When we asked participants about the frequency of their outdoor activities, the things that made a difference to how often and how long they spent time outdoors were:

  • the presence of facilities, such as seats, toilets, and shelters in their neighbourhood open space
  • good paths (easy to walk on and enjoyable) to reach their open spaces

The results also showed that

  • the presence of water features such as a fountain or a river, beach or lakeside, contributed to longer time spent in outdoor activity

top of page3. Neighbourhood open space and quality of life

When we asked participants about life satisfaction, pleasantness and safety of open spaces were relevant to their quality of life. The pleasantness of open space relates to:

  • the suitability for children's play and for chatting with people
  • a variety of activities to engage in (or to watch)
  • the quality of trees and plants
  • good facilities such as seats, toilets, and shelters

Safety of open spaces relates to:

  • night-time safety in neighbourhood open space and in paths to it
  • a neighbourhood open space free from crime

top of page4. Preferences for environmental attributes

It is important to understand what specific environmental features and elements are preferred by older people and are likely to influence their choice and use of open spaces. When we used a choice-based conjoint questionnaire, where people were confronted with choice situations mimicking those in real life, the results show that the key elements that participants prefer are:

  • an open space which is without nuisance (e.g. from dog mess or undesirable people hanging about),
  • cafes and/or toilets,
  • dense trees and plants,
  • light traffic on the way to the park,
  • wildlife to watch, and
  • well-maintained open space.

This means that getting these elements right will make more of a difference to people than other elements of open spaces and access to them.

4.1 Nuisance

An open space without nuisance is greatly preferred (99%).

4.2 Facilities

Most participants (83%) preferred café and toilets when they appeared together rather than separately. Many seats in the park (99%) was also a highly preferred amenity.

4.3 Trees and plants

All participants wanted an open space with tree-lined paths en route, and a high portion preferred one with dense trees and plants (42%).

4.4 Travel to the open space

This issue involved a number of different aspects:

  • Public transport: participants would like their open spaces to be easily accessible by public transportation (91%).
  • Car park: most participants valued having a car park nearby (96%).
  • Traffic: light traffic on route (93%) is greatly valued when compared with medium and heavy traffic.
  • Distance: most people (57%) preferred an open space which is 5-10 minutes away from their homes as compared with shorter (0-5) and longer distances (10-15 or 15+ minutes).
  • Seats en route: most people preferred to have some seats en route (95%) in their local open space.

4.5 Aesthetics/things to watch

Most participants wished to have some water feature (97%) in their local open space. When the question was about things to watch in the place, wildlife (76%) was the most preferred.

4.6 Maintenance

A well-maintained open space is preferred by all. Also, participants preferred an open space with high quality pavement (99%) and one where pavement is found in all areas (97%).

4.7 Sub-group preferences in the sample of older people

When considering different sub groups in the sample, defined by: whether or not people live alone and whether or not they have difficulty in getting around, the findings showed that:

  • those who live with someone place a higher importance on the provision of facilities (e.g. cafes and toilets) and a car park;
  • those respondents who live alone place a relatively higher importance on the shortness of the distance to the open space and whether there are trees planted along the footpath; and
  • respondents who have greater difficulty getting around place greater importance on the provision of seats, both at the open space and en route.

top of page5. Design guidance: place attributes that work

The following guidance is based on observations, accompanied walks, interviews, and photographic analysis of older people’s use of outdoor spaces (for details see OPENspace research methods). The table below shows the attributes that successful open spaces for older people displayed. They relate to the key elements that we have found participants prefer from our questionnaire surveys of older people.

Click on the images to enlarge them.

Table 1. Place attributes that work
Light traffic and
easy parking
Easy parking This means the ability to park near open space access points, with space to park easily. 'Easy' parking means having plenty of parking spaces, and easy manoeuvrability, with light traffic if it's on-road parking.
Easy to find access, with no barriers to open spaces 'Natural gateway' A cluster of trees at main park access points and/or start of main pathways, can create a 'gateway' effect. This is particularly helpful in an open landscape, such as along the coast, where there is no formal gate entrance to a park. The 'natural gateway' of trees signifies 'welcome', enhances a sense of arrival, and creates a park-like atmosphere.
Facilities such as cafes and toilets Easy to find and accessible toilets. Toilets should be located at 'gateway' points with clear views and ready access to them. A natural tree canopy helps provide shelter and a comfortable micro-climate, but lines of visibility should be maintained from main paths/key areas of activity.
  Easily accessible food place A place to get a cup of tea or ice cream and somewhere pleasant to sit near by and that offers shelter is desirable. The facilities need to be easily accessible.  
Dense trees and shrubs Evidence of maintenance Dense trees and shrubs are attractive so long as there is evidence of maintenance e.g. mown lawns, pruned shrubs; bins emptied, dog mess and graffiti removed.  
Aesthetics and things to watch, including wildlife Attractive places and view points Vantage points with comfortable seating or leaning walls or railings can encourage people to stop and take in a view looking outwards to surrounding areas and provides potential interest for engaging with wildlife.  
  Promenading path (linear) A wide main path along the edge of something of interest, such as a riverside, is very attractive. This should have a pleasant sitting area no more than 50 m along the path from the main entry point to give older people an easy to reach destination point.  
  Promenading path (circular) A main circular route around something of interest, such as a lake or pond, is very attractive. Ideally it should have frequent smaller paths joining, to link it with exit and entry points into or out of the space around the edge, to maximise the opportunity for people to come and go at any point, and provide short circular routes for people exercising their dogs.  
  Promenade and sport Paths can encourage people to take an interesting route, stop and view sporting activities at the edge of football and cricket pitches etc, for example by providing a tree lined path, and/or by placing a group of seats for viewing from a safe distance.
  Promenade and wildlife Opportunities to engage with wildlife can be provided near a main path. Providing good 'leaning places' and/or seats, at places which give good access to sights, sounds or other experiences of wildlife, helps make these activities easy and pleasant.
Well maintained open spaces Active maintenance The presence of gardeners or rangers weeding, mowing etc., or their vehicles in evidence give confidence that the open space is being maintained and provides an added feeling of security. Making gardeners' sheds visible can also help.  
  Open edge A feeling of open-ness with paths not tightly enclosed by walls or hedges enhances a sense of the space being well cared for with clear visibility in and out of the open space through permeable edges.
  Natural surveillance Natural surveillance can be provided by a permeable edge that allows passers by or those in adjacent buildings to look into or across the space; open views across site from high points also help.
Good paths, easy to walk on and enjoyable. Thoroughfaring hierarchy A choice of paths across a site, helps encourage a constant through flow of people. This can be achieved by providing convenient and pleasant short cuts, such as to shops. A good hierarchy of paths of differing widths would have a main boulevard 5-8 m wide, with smaller paths of between 2-5 m. width
  Multiple exit/entry points Many entrances around the edge of a park provide many opportunities for short-cuts across the open space. These must be clearly defined to help people see where they are.  
  Multi-activity path A wide main path (5-8 m wide) to allow for activity along both edges (with seats along the edge) and a wide walking space works well. This allows people to sit on the path and feel part of something going on without feeling crowded.  
  Multi-activity space Paths where grandparents and older carers can move at a leisurely pace whilst children (or dogs) can run around alongside e.g. round and round a grassy area, or up and down sloping banks, work well.  
  'Dog bank' A sloping bank with a path along the top provides a place for dog walkers to throw a ball for their dog: the height advantage means no real effort is needed to propel the ball (good for people with weak arm strength). Such a bank is equally good for young children to roll down/run up and down with grandparents/carers walking alongside.
  Multi-activity walls Low walls that are good for both sitting and leaning on encourage incidental inter-generational use; younger people can sit on them while older people might lean on them. Such walls, depending on their height, can encourage two types of activity: passive (e.g. sitting/leaning) and active (e.g. children walking along them).
  Leaning places Walls and railings are good for leaning on, especially when located at scenic places, such as a water edge or wildlife viewing or listening points. Sturdy railings of at least waist height are good for leaning/resting on, the smoother the better. At the water's edge, especially, a lower rail provides both safety and a fun element for younger children so that all ages can enjoy the edge experience together e.g. a view out to sea.
Tree-lined paths Tree-lined avenues Defining the main walking paths as tree-lined avenues helps people to see where they begin and end.

  'Natural' Cyclist/ pedestrian segregation Design can help encourage 'natural' segregation of cyclists from other path users by making the walking paths look completely different e.g. using avenue of trees. Cycling paths should be made deliberately unappealing to older people, such as by having no seats.  
  Sociable path Paths with a well-defined edge and seating on one side can encourage people to linger when talking. If the path width is not too wide, it can maximise opportunities for incidental social interaction e.g. verbal exchange between walking people and sitting people.  
Seats in the open space and en route to it Seats everywhere It is good to provide a seat for every purpose: seats that are easily accessed from the paths in a park or public space, but which provide different types of sitting places each with distinct purpose.  
  Garden seat A seat in a lawn area, although harder to access than on a footpath, can be attractive with shrubbery or trees immediately behind and an open area in front. The seat should be set back from main path at least 2 metres (but no more than 10 metres) to create a more peaceful place to sit, but not far from the path.
  Path as sitting place. Seats on a wide path in a sunny, pleasant spot are very attractive. A path of 4-5 m width should create a place where people can take a rest and stretch out their legs comfortably and not feel forced to move on quickly.
  Snoozing seat. Seats can act like armchairs if they have arms and high backs, placed in peaceful but people-active spots such as a riverside, away from children's play areas. Snoozing seats should be set back from path approximately 2-5m. Garden seats also make good snoozing seats.
  Playground sitting. A choice of seats both inside and outside a playground boundary are popular; trees can provide shade and shelter, as well as hide and seek opportunities for children.
  Dog-sitting. Garden seats are popular in places where dogs can run around and owners can sit. This seat would be easier to use if it had arms.  
  A crescent of seats A crescent of seats can provide a relaxed sitting area, close to but set back from, a busy entrance and/or main thoroughfare path. A sitting area with good views creates a sitting terrace where people will happily sit for some time.

top of page6. Landscape typologies, spatial experiences and design recommendations

The following summarises a typology of kinds of landscape space that can offer positive outdoor experiences for older people, based on our observational studies, and identifies key design issues relating to them

6.1. Linear promenade by coastal/riverside edge

Experiential characteristics (ideal/desired effect)

  • Path activity (leisurely movement of people moving back and forth)
  • Edge activity (visual and physical engagement with water, such as viewing, gazing, and fishing)
  • Path characteristically distanced from water edge by level change or spatial structure (e.g., river bank, dunes, shingle beach)

Key design challenges (problems/potentials)

  • Making provision for conflicting needs, such as car users, pedestrians, joggers, and cyclists.
  • Making a good edge, that is, places to stop, sit, view, and gaze out.

6.2. Circular promenade in urban park setting around body of water

Experiential characteristics (ideal/desired effect)

  • Path activity (leisurely movement of people moving round water with people entering, leaving at different points
  • Edge activity (visual and physical engagement with water, such as gazing across water, feeding ducks, and watching other people
  • Path and edge relationship – act as one combined element and is more immediate and direct than at coastal/riverside

Key design challenges (problems/potentials)

  • Making provision for conflicting needs of users
  • Making a good edge

6.3. Urban neighbourhood and pocket park with thoroughfares

Experiential characteristics (ideal/desired effect)

  • Path activity (shoppers/people thoroughfaring through; dog walkers circuiting)
  • Space activity (unstructured, such as football kickaround and structured, such as tennis)
  • Focal points and hubs of activity (e.g., café, sitting terraces, and children’s play area)
  • Edge activity (people penetrating in/out at various points around perimeter)

Key design challenges (problems/potentials)

  • Making provision for passive and active uses of park of all age groups
  • Thorough faring activity that will also encourage incidental social interactions and other inadvertent activities, such as sitting, watching and playing with dog

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© Catharine Ward Thompson, Takemi Sugiyama, Susana Alves and Katherine Southwell, OPENspace
I'DGO - Inclusive Design for Getting Outdoors. Last updated 10 June 2007

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