- Introduction to older people’s experiences of their outdoor environments
- How important it was to participants to be able to get outdoors
- How much participants enjoyed being outdoors
- How safe participants felt when they were out
- How easily participants found their way around
- General satisfaction with their local neighbourhood
- What participants thought about their neighbourhood’s physical environment
- What participants thought about their local neighbourhood’s social environment
- Other common problems and concerns
- Other influences affecting participants’ experiences
- Neighbourhood parks and open spaces
Parts 2-11 of this section presents some findings from in-depth interviews conducted by OISD:WISE and SURFACE with 200 older people aged 65 or over. Participants lived in a wide range of different urban/rural locations, although the sample was weighted slightly towards the suburbs. Part 12 (neighbourhood parks and open spaces) describes some findings from separate, cross-sectional surveys conducted by OPENspace with a sample of over 300 older people in a variety of urban, suburban and rural contexts in Britain.
Here we talk about whether participants enjoyed or felt safe being out, how they felt about their local neighbourhoods and factors that influenced their outdoor experiences. This information helps to identify the features that can help or hinder older people in successfully using and enjoying their outdoor environments.
For other findings from these interviews and surveys go to How does the Outdoor Environment affect Older People’s QoL? , Use of Outdoor Environments, Street Environment and Parks and Open Spaces.
In the OISD:WISE and SURFACE interviews, nearly all participants said it was very important to them to be able to get outside (90%, a further 8% said fairly important). Participants often talked about how boring or depressing it was if they were ‘stuck indoors’ for a few days and expressed a great fear of becoming housebound and the effects it would have on their physical and social wellbeing. One participant told us that “I would die if I couldn’t get outside the house!” and another that “It's a psychological thing about escaping the flat, I get cabin fever and a load comes off my mind when I go out”. Many specifically referred to the need for a change of scenery and a sense of being hemmed in or confined if they had not been out for a day or two, especially those living in small flats or bedsits. Others talked about how important it was to them to be able to get fresh air and exercise or to maintain their independence by buying their own food and other essentials.
The vast majority of participants said they enjoyed being out and about in their local neighbourhood. Over half said they enjoyed being out very much (57%) and over a quarter said they enjoyed being out quite a lot (28%). Explanations as to why they enjoyed being outdoors were often very similar to their reasons for it being important to be able to get outside. For many people, enjoyment of being outside seemed to have a direct link with a positive sense of wellbeing and we heard comments such as, “It’s my great pleasure in life; I can’t bear to be indoors all day” and “I have a different feeling about myself when I get home after being out”.
i) Why participants enjoyed being in their gardens or balconies
Gardens were, not surprisingly, very important to those participants who often spend time in them, such as the person who said “I couldn’t bear not to have a garden.” When asked what they liked about their gardens, people gave answers such as “I like to potter in the garden” and “I like to see how things are and to sit and see the birds”. Balconies were often seen as a good compromise for those who did not have access to a garden. One participant told us that her “balcony makes a big difference” and another explained “I like my balcony; I like to feed the birds and have plants and I can sit out and get fresh air through the open door”.
ii) Why participants enjoyed being in their local neighbourhood
When we asked more specific questions about why they enjoyed being out and about in their local neighbourhood, the top 4 reasons given were:
- Seeing/meeting people (68%)
- Exercise (59%)
- Fresh air (57%)
- Stimulation/interest (44%)
Social interaction was obviously an enjoyable and important reason for going out whether it was just being among people, seeing friendly or familiar faces on the street, chatting to people in shops and at bus stops or visiting family and friends. A resident of a sheltered housing scheme told us that “even though there is a common room here, it’s nice to get outside and see different people and talk about different things”. Another participant explained that, for her, “having company, meeting people and communicating keeps your mind still fresh and thoughtful”.
Exercise and fresh air were very much linked together and tended to be enjoyed by people who liked to keep fit and healthy and those who simply enjoyed going for walks. One person told us that “you sleep and eat better if you get out regularly in the fresh air” and another that “my generation was brought up to take fresh air and exercise”.
Participants who talked about enjoying being out and about because they found it stimulating or interesting were either happy just to have a change of scene from being indoors or expressed great pleasure at being in the countryside or an attractive neighbourhood or urban green open space. The enjoyment many felt being outdoors was expressed wonderfully by one participant who said “I enjoy the seasons and elements of change. I like trees, wildlife and the atmosphere – it’s all stimulating for thought”. Like this participant, a number of people specifically mentioned the pleasure at seeing wildlife and nature including someone who told us “I love to see animals and birds … without birds it would be a very sad state”.
We asked how safe participants generally felt when they were outside, both before and after dark. We also asked them how safe they felt from motorised traffic, and from cyclists, skateboarders and rollerbladers.
i) General safety
The responses for general safety were as follows:
|General safety before dark||59% said they felt very safe, 32% fairly safe|
|General safety after dark||26% said they felt very safe, 18% fairly safe|
It is clear from these figures that people felt far less safe after dark. We asked what it was that made them feel unsafe, again both before and after dark. The most common reasons were fear of attack (19% before dark, 53% after dark) and youngsters hanging around (21% before dark, 41% after dark). Although eight participants said that they had been mugged themselves, most said that their fear was due to hearing about people being mugged locally, either through word of mouth or the media. “Hoodies”, “druggies”, drunks and gangs were often referred to and the sense of intimidation they caused even when they were not actually behaving in an intimidating manner. As one participant explained, “groups of youngsters can sometimes seem threatening but they are not necessarily threatening, it just feels so”.
People who said they did not feel very safe when they were out also tended to say that their neighbourhoods were not very attractive and that the housing and outside areas were not in very good condition. Places where they particularly felt vulnerable during the day were mainly parks and other open spaces and footpaths, lanes, alleyways and underpasses. Another common theme was that participants often felt safe during the week but not at weekends, when they believed that there were more youngsters hanging around during the day and rowdy people coming out of the local pubs or clubs at night.
Nearly a quarter of participants said that they never went out after dark, which in the winter meant after 4 or 5pm, because they did not think it was safe to do so. Quite a few said that they would only go out after dark if they were in a car or with their dog or another person and that they would be particularly cautious or “on red alert all the time”, as one participant described it. Although parks and other open spaces, footpaths, lanes, alleyways and underpasses were again often mentioned as places that felt risky after dark, the most commonly mentioned places where people felt unsafe after dark were city/town centres and high streets, streets with pubs on and deserted streets and places. Inadequate lighting was also blamed by some people for making them feel unsafe not only from attack but also from tripping up.
The responses for safety from motorised and non-motorised traffic were as follows:
|Safety from motorised traffic||37% said they felt very safe, 37% fairly safe|
|Safety from cyclists, skateboarders and rollerbladers||35% said they felt very safe, 22% fairly safe|
Participants were clearly more concerned about cyclists, skateboarders and rollerbladers than they were about motorised traffic. However, the speed and amount of motorised traffic in participants’ local neighbourhoods was a major cause for concern for many, particularly in areas with narrow footways or inadequate or no pedestrian crossings. Heavy lorries on narrow roads and cars parked on footways were also likely to make people feel unsafe.
By far the greatest worry about non-motorised traffic was cyclists using the footways rather than the road or cycle track, as expressed by a participant who said “a cult has grown among cyclists here that they think they can cycle anywhere. I was nearly knocked down recently by one coming round the corner on the pavement. There have been many complaints but the police just see it as a nuisance and don’t prosecute”. Fear of being knocked over by cyclists on the footway was compounded by the fact that the older people often could not hear the bicycles coming up behind them or, as one person put it, “bikers don’t use bells anymore, they just sneak up behind you!”. Some people told us that being startled in this way caused them to lose their balance or to step into the road.
Few participants said they had seen skateboards or rollerblades in their local neighbourhoods in recent years but mini-motorbikes and mobility scooters seem to have taken their place as secondary ‘menaces’ after bicycles, according to our participants.
Most of the research participants (84%) said they found it very easy to find their way around their neighbourhoods. People who said it was easy to find their way around often thought it was mainly due to the fact that they had lived in the area for a long time but good landmarks and signage and small contained neighbourhoods were also thought to help their wayfinding. People who did not find it very easy blamed difficult street layouts, no through roads, poor signage and poor lighting.
We asked people if they had fallen, tripped or stumbled outside in the last 6 months – 19% said they had, and many more said they had in the last 12 or 18 months. In fact, the fear of falling was the most commonly reported problem that participants told us they faced when they went outdoors. This fear was based not only on any health problems they might have but also on the poor design or maintenance of the outdoor environment. Cracked and uneven paving was by far the most common cause of trips and falls, followed by slippery paving, obstructions, steps and slopes.
Participants generally seemed satisfied with their neighbourhoods as places to live (53% said they were very satisfied and 33% were fairly satisfied). Our findings match those of the UK government’s 2003/4 Survey of English Housing in which 49% of the 20,000 households surveyed said they were very satisfied and 37% were fairly satisfied with their neighbourhoods. Perhaps not surprisingly, we also found that the people who told us they were satisfied with their local neighbourhood were also more likely to tell us that they very much enjoyed being out. They were also more likely to say that they felt safe when they were out before dark and from motorised traffic than those who were not satisfied with their neighbourhood.
Looking at the reasons why people were or were not satisfied with their local neighbourhoods, there are a number of common themes that could be used to describe a good neighbourhood for an older person. A satisfactory neighbourhood is close to suitable shops and facilities yet also within easy reach of countryside. It has green open spaces, trees and other greenery, a good bus service and clean, well lit and well maintained streets and spaces. It also has a friendly community spirit and is safe and quiet both in terms of traffic and pedestrians. However, it must be remembered that people in any age group will have a large and diverse range of preferences so although the described neighbourhood may be the preferred choice of many older people, it would not necessarily be so for everyone over the age of 65.
As well as asking participants about their general satisfaction with their local neighbourhoods we also asked some specific questions about their neighbourhoods in terms of the physical and social environment. The findings from these questions are described in Sections 8 and 9.
i) How attractive was their local neighbourhood?
Most participants thought their local neighbourhood was attractive (41% said very attractive, 43% said fairly attractive). These tended to be the same people who had already told us that they were very satisfied with their neighbourhood. When we asked why they thought their neighbourhood was attractive most of them said, firstly, that it was due to the large amount of greenery, trees and flowers and, secondly, that the neighbourhood had a distinctive local character that had not been lost or compromised even by new developments that existed in the area. Similarly, people who did not find their neighbourhood attractive often talked about the lack of street greenery and loss of local character and increase in uniformity caused by new developments but they also talked about living in neighbourhoods that had deteriorated over the years, dirty and badly maintained streets, derelict or empty buildings and heavy traffic. One participant summed up why she did not think her neighbourhood was attractive by saying “when I first came I found it a very attractive little market town but it has changed because they are building estates everywhere. It’s just becoming like any other town now and we haven’t got the roads, they are all narrow and winding and you can’t move”.
ii) The condition of the local housing
Practically all the participants said that the condition of the housing in their neighbourhood was good and that the properties and front gardens were well maintained (50% said very good and 48% said fairly good). A number of people who said that the housing was in fairly good condition said that, as a whole, the housing was in good condition but there were a few poorly maintained houses as well or, as one person said, “for the most part, yes, but there are some real stinkers that are neglected, they look dreadful but the little terraced houses are well kept”. Other participants, however, talked about their neighbourhoods being blighted by scruffy, derelict or boarded-up properties and of the poor quality of much of the local modern housing.
Few people thought the condition of the outside areas, that is the streets and open spaces, in their neighbourhoods was very good (15%) and around half thought they were in fairly good condition (49%). The people who thought the condition of their local outside areas was good said that it was because they were clean and well maintained. A vast number of the other residents who thought the condition of their local outside areas was not very good said that broken and uneven paving was the main problem. Other common complaints were litter, overgrown hedges, unkempt parks, gardens and grass verges, and broken street lighting which, added to the state of the paving, conjures up a picture of very poorly maintained streets and open spaces in some areas. However, conditions are improving for at least one participant who lives in an area currently undergoing regeneration: “It’s improving – from a sad, neglected area it’s becoming a place that is desirable to live in”.
iv) Litter and rubbish
Nearly two-thirds of participants said that litter and rubbish were a problem on the streets in their neighbourhood (63%). Areas outside take-away food outlets were said to have the most litter and rubbish, such as fast food wrappers, chewing gum, drink cans, bottles and broken glass, followed by outside shops and schools. Children and youngsters were targeted for blame by a number of participants for the litter and rubbish in their neighbourhoods.
Just over one-third of participants thought graffiti was a problem in their neighbourhood (37%). In these neighbourhoods graffiti seemed to be found mostly on public property, such as bus shelters, telephone boxes, buildings, walls and parks, rather than private property. It was also more often seen on main roads and shopping centres rather than residential streets. Some participants found graffiti to be quite threatening whereas others did not seem bothered by it at all.
Noise was also only considered to be a problem by just over one-third of participants (39%) with traffic being by far the most common cause of noise. As well as general traffic, heavy lorries, motorbikes, quad bikes and emergency vehicle sirens were often specifically mentioned. People living close to airports tended to complain about noise from aeroplanes and helicopters. In addition, local factories, workshops, pubs and clubs were often blamed for contributing to noise, as were noisy neighbours and local children and youngsters. Noise had a striking effect on some people’s sense of mental wellbeing: one person said “traffic noise can reduce me to tears; I find it exhausting and wearing”. For others it was more of a physical problem as they could not sleep with their windows open while others simply removed their hearing aids when it became noisy!
vii) Air quality
Very few people thought the local air quality was bad (44% said it was very good, 37% said it was fairly good). Again, traffic was blamed as the major cause of poor air quality, followed by factories and incinerators. Interestingly, people who thought the local air quality was good often either attributed this to living away from busy roads or to living close to the countryside or to a park.
i) The level of community spirit
We asked participants to say how much community spirit there was in their neighbourhood. Most people thought that community spirit existed to at least some extent, with 49% saying there was a lot and 33% saying there was a little. Participants tended to think that community spirit was most likely to be found amongst organised groups, such as in sheltered housing schemes, places of worship, residents’ associations, neighbourhood watch schemes and social clubs and societies. On a more informal level, people who felt there was some community spirit talked about neighbours looking after each other and chatting or saying hello to people on the streets. Similarly, people who did not think there was any local community spirit talked about the lack of local support groups and how neighbours and people on the streets did not talk to them.
Some interesting comments were made about how they felt the built environment influences local community spirit. For example, one person who thought there was a lot of community spirit in her local neighbourhood said “you have to work hard at it but there is a good community here and housing fronting straight on to the street helps the community spirit”. Someone who thought there was only a little community spirit in his local neighbourhood said “there is very little because it's a long straight road with houses only on one side, it’s different to living in a small close”. Another participant who thought there was no community spirit in his local neighbourhood told us “I don't think there is any community spirit because there are so many incomers, there's lots of retirement housing and young family housing, all expensive yet so desolate, which annoys the older locals and causes resentment”.
ii) The number of people they knew in their local neighbourhood
When we asked participants how many people they knew in their local neighbourhood only two said they did not know anybody. Most said they knew a lot of people (65%) and the rest that they knew a few (34%). Some said that they knew many people because they had lived locally for a long time or they had worked in the local area. Some people said they had met most of their friends and acquaintances through their place of worship, clubs and societies and others said that most of the people they knew lived within their older person’s housing development or sheltered housing scheme. People who only knew a few people often said this was because their neighbours did not stay for very long or that a number of their local friends and acquaintances had died. One man who had lived in the same house all his life and had worked locally surprised us by saying that he did not know many people in his neighbourhood. He explained that “the village is too big now and I don't get to know people so much and they come and go without my meeting them, I can no longer name all the families up the street like when I was young”.
iii) Problem neighbours
Around one-quarter of participants said they had problem neighbours (26%). Noise was by far the biggest complaint, particularly from people living close to pubs, nightclubs and student flats. Children playing in the street, people playing loud music or working on their cars were also potential nuisances. Local youngsters, drug users and drunks were again specifically mentioned as being problematic but so too were adults who behaved in a threatening manner or parked their vehicles illegally or inconsiderately.
Nearly all the participants thought their neighbours looked after each other at least some of the time (48% said all the time, 45% said sometimes). Neighbourly help tended to be in the form of checking on people who had not been seen for a while, visiting or helping people while they were ill and keeping an eye on neighbours’ property while they were away.
A number of people living in sheltered or older people’s housing mentioned that their fellow neighbours within the schemes were very helpful but they had very little contact with other neighbours. A participant who thought his neighbours looked after each other only some of the time felt this was due to the form of housing he was living in: “We live in a bungalow so people are more reserved than before when we lived in a terrace”.
v) Trustworthy neighbours
When we asked if people in their neighbourhoods could be trusted only two people said that they did not trust any of them. Most people thought that all or most of their neighbours could be trusted (48% said all of them, 39% said most of them). Those who did not think everyone could be trusted tended to say that they trusted their close neighbours completely but were more wary of other local people.
vi) Local crime
Relatively few people thought crime was a big problem in their local neighbourhood (11%) but around half thought it was something of a problem (50%). A frightening array of criminal acts was discussed including murder, muggings, illegal drug using and pushing, bag snatching, pickpocketing and bank, post office and ram raids. However, the types of crime mentioned the most often were burglary and car theft. 20 participants had been burgled themselves and seven had had a vehicle stolen. Youngsters and drug users often received the blame for local crime.
Unsurprisingly, people who thought crime was a problem locally also tended to say that they did not feel very safe when they were out before or after dark and that not everyone in their neighbourhood could be trusted. However, how frequently participants went into their garden, balcony or neighbourhood did not seem to be particularly affected by whether or not they thought crime was a problem locally.
People living in sheltered housing schemes often commented that they felt safer from crime than when they had been living in their own homes, such as the person who said “the beauty of this place here is that our front door is not on the street so we feel safe indoors”. Residents also appreciated having a secure main entrance with an intercom connected to their flat and some people living above the ground floor mentioned that they felt safer than they would if they were living at ground level where criminals would find it easier to break in.
vii) Vandalism and hooliganism
When we asked if they thought vandalism and hooliganism was much of a problem in their local neighbourhoods we received very similar responses to our question about crime with 11% saying it was a big problem and 49% saying it was something of a problem.
As with crime, we were given a diverse number of examples of local vandalism and hooliganism of which car vandalism was by far the most frequently mentioned. Other types of vandalism referred to by a number of people included arson and breaking windows, telephone boxes, post boxes, bus shelters, for sale signs, street lighting, trees and flowers, public seating and toilets, railings, fences, hedges and gates. Reported hooliganism tended to consist of fighting, shouting abuse, throwing eggs or playing football! Most occurrences of vandalism and hooliganism were said to generally take place in town centres, shopping areas and parks, outside pubs and by rivers and canals. Again children, youngsters and drug users were considered to be the biggest culprits although ‘drunks’ also received some of the blame.
We asked participants if they experienced any other problems that we had not already talked about in the interview. Around half our research participants said they did face problems, which included difficulties crossing busy roads or accessing buildings from the street; poor bus services; a lack of local shops and facilities, public seating, toilets and car parking spaces; too much street clutter and vehicles parked on footways. A major problem for a number of participants in different locations, however, was the closure of their local post office which meant that they had further to go to get to the nearest one and once there they were faced with long queues because of the larger catchment area.
We investigated a range of factors such as age, gender, health and past occupation to see if they had any influence on participants’ experiences of their local neighbourhoods. Those that did appear to have some influence are as follows:
The only influence gender had on participants’ responses was that more women than men said that they did not feel very safe when they were out after dark (63% were women). Women were also more likely to specifically say this was because they were frightened of being attacked (67% were women).
Participants aged 75 and over generally seemed to be more positive about their outdoor experiences than those aged between 65 and 74. For example, they were more likely to say that they enjoyed going out than their younger counterparts and to say that crime was not a problem in their local neighbourhood.
iii) Past occupation
Participants had been employed in a diverse range of skilled and unskilled occupations although just over half were classified as having worked in either a managerial or professional occupation (56%) (SOC2000).
Nearly two-thirds of people who said they were very satisfied with their neighbourhood as a place to live had worked in a managerial or professional occupation. People who had worked in these types of occupation were also more likely to say that they enjoy being out and about than those in other occupations.
People who had worked in non-managerial or non-professional occupations tended to have more negative comments about their local neighbourhoods. For example, they were more likely to say that their neighbourhoods were not attractive and that the condition of the local housing was not very good. They were also far more likely to feel that crime was a problem in their local neighbourhood and to be more fearful of youngsters hanging around before dark and of being attacked after dark. We will be analysing the findings in greater depth to find out whether this means that people in managerial or professional occupations do generally live in more attractive areas.
Social contact appears to be particularly important for people living alone as they were far more likely to tell us that they enjoy going out because of seeing or meeting people; as one participant explained, “when you live by yourself it’s good to get out and meet others”. People who were living with others tended to cite exercise as their main reason for enjoying being out.
v) How long they had lived in the neighbourhood
Interestingly, people who had lived in their neighbourhood for over 10 years were far more likely to feel that people in their neighbourhood could be trusted yet they were also more likely to say that crime was a problem locally.
People who had health problems tended to say that they did not enjoy being out and about very much, mainly due to feeling frail or unsteady on their feet, being in pain or lacking the energy to make the most of being outside. Some participants had to cope with many problems, such as the person who said “I can't drive or get the bus anymore, it's hard to walk and I get desperately tired and I can't see where I'm going very well so I get lost”. But people with mobility problems were the most likely to say that they do not enjoy being out very much and nearly half of all the participants (45%) told us that their outdoor activities were limited because of poor mobility. They often spoke of feeling annoyed or frustrated at not being able to walk as far or for as long as they used to and at having had to give up social activities that they had enjoyed in the past.
The following findings relate to the separate, OPENspace surveys of people’s outdoor activity in relation to neighbourhood parks and open spaces
- Access and quality of neighbourhood open spaces was associated with longer walking times for participants. Different aspects of neighbourhood open spaces were relevant to different types of walking.
- Pleasant neighbourhood outdoor spaces (that is, those with a welcoming and relaxing atmosphere, suitable for chatting with people and children’s play, and with high quality of trees and plants) in participants’ neighbourhood were conducive to longer recreational walking. Pleasantness in this case thus involves both aesthetic and social dimensions.
- Attractive neighbourhood open spaces provide good opportunities for social interaction with family, friends and neighbours, which is an important aspect of older people’s daily lives. The provision of suitable outdoor places for informal social engagement may thus be likely to entice older people into more active lifestyles.
- Nuisance in neighbourhood outdoor spaces affected participants’ recreational walking. For example, unattended dogs, dog fouling and youngsters hanging around discouraged them from walking for recreational purposes.
- Good paths to neighbourhood outdoor spaces (that is, easy to walk on, enjoyable, and with no obstacles) emerged as a significant predictor of walking for transport - walking to get to a destination rather than just walking for pleasure or exercise as an end in itself. Our findings imply that the experience along a footpath, which may include aesthetics (e.g., scenery) and comfort (e.g., less traffic), may be as important as its presence and condition.
- Good facilities (toilets and shelters) and accessible public transport to get to outdoor spaces contributed to participants’ walking time for transport.
- Waterscapes referring to an accessible body of water nearby and water feature in the neighbourhood were significantly association with participants’ level of walking.
Office for National Statistics, 2000. Standard Occupation Classification. www.statistics.gov.uk [cited 1 November 2004].
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