The Vitality Bench: A seat for all, made by all, in a city for all
The quality of the environment outside the home has a huge bearing on an older person’s quality of life: paying attention to the built environment can make the difference between someone participating in life, or being isolated at home.
With the world’s population getting older and more urban, the needs of older residents will play an increasingly important part in the shaping of cities. Furthermore, OECD found that cities in advanced economies are growing older more quickly than rural areas. In other words, cities get older, but, paradoxically, they are not cities for older people. After all, you only need to visit any city in the West to realise it.
We probably all agree with the Foresighted Reasoning on Environmental Stressors and Health (FRESH) recommendations: “Cities should become safer and cleaner, incorporating better accessibility to multi-functional green spaces, public transport and health services. Housing suitable for older people is also needed. Age-friendly urban living environments facilitate social interaction and physical activity and limit impacts of harmful exposures. Multi-functional green spaces, better and accessible public transport and more cycling and walking contribute to better health of all age-groups as well as a reduction of environmental exposures and greenhouse gases”
And though there are more than 700 cities in 39 countries now signed up to the World Health Organisation’s global network of age-friendly cities and communities to promote healthy active ageing and improve the quality of life for people over 60, the point of evolution of practical solutions is still a topic of debate.
Membership to a global network of age-friendly cities doesn’t necessarily denote an age-friendly city, but that it is committed to listening and working with its older population to create one.
Even if the threshold of attention around this theme is progressively rising, the reflection on the implications that old age has on the city, on its spaces, on its organisation is still out of focus. And even if specific studies on these aspects are spreading, they are not able to get out of an approach that oscillates between technicism and generality.
Furthermore, if listening to older citizens remains crucial in order to understand what and how to design for which needs, it is perhaps time to make a broader reflection on at least two aspects – Listening to whom?; and the practical translation of listening into solutions to be made readily available to cities.
Listening to whom? The voices of the City
The fact that cities are not designed for older adults does not mean that they should “exclusively” designed for them, replacing a dogma with another one. The city is an inclusive multicultural, multigenerational, fluid and dynamic space par excellence. Its usability must be transversal and universal. In fact, the risk is that of building spaces or neighbourhoods perfectly designed for a demographic category, but disconnected from the urban fabric or its context and therefore easily transformed into places inhabited only, for example, by older people where no one feels really at home: neither the oldest nor the youngest.
It risks lacking a wide-ranging vision such as those that, in the great moments of transformation of societies, only the artistic avant-garde and utopian thought have been able to propose. Perhaps the time has come for inter-generational listening to citizenship, where the voice of the city is a choir of all ages together, rather than a system of voices capable of expressing its own needs but disconnected from the others.
Practically translating the listening in to actions
If listening is fundamental, it is equally necessary to translate listening into practical action.
Events like COVID-19 have shown that perhaps the greatest resistance to change is ourselves, our cultural stereotypes, our tendency to repeat existing processes. It would not be explained otherwise how, precisely as a result of a momentous event such as a pandemic, new urban planning solutions and new transport facilities, for example, cycle paths previously only dreamed of, flourished within a few weeks.
This is made possible, firstly, by a collective consciousness and therefore we must start from it to promote change. But also in a functional way, by new technologies that range from facilitating the collection of consensus, to bringing objects from design to production, and drastically reducing time to market.
Listening collaboratively to the combined voices of all generations at different stages of life and different socio-economic circumstances, translating needs – and above all aspirations and desires – into tangible actions is the exercise that distinguishes our approach, and that we have applied in the design of the Vitality bench.
Under the auspices of a project launched by Newcastle University and Design Network North to showcase the value of a design process, and led by Jonathan Butters of Butters Innovation, we co-designed the entire process involving our community: from defining the area of intervention to the production of the finished object.
We started by organising a programme of consumer-led workshops to establish the goal of the design project. These meetings included VOICE members who were given the brief and ask to decide on a product that would be valuable to the public. After much debate, the participants decided that the project would focus on public seating – more specifically a bench that would be suitable for all ages.
The rationale for the project came from VOICE members, some of whom are retired designers and architects. They explained that, if you found walking distances challenging, without the right seating, at the right places, you quickly found yourself excluded from many public places and this could lead to isolation and loneliness.
This follows what Joe Oldman, Age UK’s policy manager for housing and transport, said: “Accessible public transport, level pavements, places to sit, the removal of trip hazards, good street lighting and public toilets are all vital components to encouraging older people to stay engaged with their local community.” In other words, it is clear that the quality of the environment outside the home has a huge bearing on an older person’s quality of life: paying attention to the built environment can make the difference between someone participating in life, or being isolated at home.
The observations we collected pointed out how benches for the public realm did not suit their requirements and had not been designed with their needs in mind, often being designed to deter ‘rough sleeping’ or with a primary soft security objective.
It was decided therefore, that re-thinking the design and purpose of a public bench could have significant benefits. The following requirements were identified: easy to get in and out of, comfortable (warm and dry), a good social space, suitable for all generations, easy to clean and maintain, and a safe space.
The outcome of this whole process is a commercially available product manufactured by North East SME, Miko Engineering as the “Vitality Bench”.
Interestingly, recently New York City has added 1,500 new benches and 3,500 new or improved bus shelters in the last decade, in consultation with senior centres on their placement – such as within 250 metres from hospitals or community facilities.
In the UK, 300 businesses in Nottingham have signed up to the city’s Take a Seat scheme, identifying shops where older people or people with disabilities are welcome to rest with a “We are age-friendly” sticker.
These are just two examples highlighting the importance of re-thinking some simple, but – at the same time – fundamental components of street furniture like the benches, often left aside in the plan of re-designing the innovation of our cities, in the name of more disruptive objects or devices.
The success of the project highlights the possibilities involved in inclusive design for all products. If we can create such fundamental social impact through redesigning something as traditional as public seating, imagine what could be achieved if we applied this approach to all new products and services.
The cities where we grew up are physical entities, ageing themselves but certainly not designed for ageing well. Today’s citizens are tomorrow’s ageing population. Those citizens are us, our children and our shared future. Those cities are what yesterday we considered as our tomorrow, but this is all happening today.