by Ann M. Colford

What does it mean to age successfully? Is the attainment of a certain numerical landmark enough, or should quality of life be factored in? If so, how does one measure life's quality? Questions like these are at the heart of research tackled by gerontologists, health care providers and psychologists -- but seldom do these issues become fodder for design discussions. At the WSU-Spokane Interdisciplinary Design Institute, however, a group of students used these questions as the starting point for a recently completed project. The students are part of the interdisciplinary design studio for fourth-year students and come from the four disciplines of architecture, interior design, landscape architecture and construction management.

"In 25 years of surveys [on aging] and analysis of the survey data, no one has considered the spatial implications of successful and productive aging," says Bob Scarfo, the faculty member leading the class. The students read selections from books on successful aging and a paper on what community psychologists term "sense of community," and then took on a design project with these principles in mind. Their goal, Scarfo says, was to apply the principles from the readings to the redesign of a four-block neighborhood in Spokane.

According to John Rowe, MD, and Robert Kahn, Ph.D., whose 1998 book, Successful Aging, provided some of the readings, growing old gracefully may be defined as the ability to maintain three key characteristics: a low risk of disease and disease-related disability; high mental (cognitive) and physical function; and active engagement with life. Their findings were drawn from a decade-long MacArthur Foundation study on various aspects of aging.

"Each factor is important in itself, and to some extent independent of the others," they write, but "it is the combination of all three -- avoidance of disease and disability, maintenance of cognitive and physical function and sustained engagement with life -- that represents the concept of successful aging most fully."

The "sense of community" researchers also focus on the relational aspects of community, particularly integrating individuals into the larger community and developing shared emotional connections.

"The idea of active engagement was involved in everything," Scarfo says.

He believes one way to encourage seniors to engage with life and with the broader community is through the development of multigenerational housing. Rather than isolating retirees in gated developments or other gray ghettoes, multigenerational housing promotes age integration while providing for the unique physical needs of different generations.

"Retirees have things to share with younger adults, and youngsters can help retirees," he says. "The idea is to design the space to bolster interaction as people carry out their daily routines."

After discussing the readings, Scarfo's students took a look at the project from last year's design studio, which created a plan for redeveloping the four-block area centered on Main and Division in downtown Spokane. Armed with their new knowledge of successful aging and community psychology, they critiqued last year's designs and came up with new plans. Each of the four teams proposed a mixed-use neighborhood, with residential, commercial and public spaces. Some of their ideas included:

Attract restaurants and retail stores at street level to encourage pedestrian activity in the neighborhood

Create small parks and green spaces to open up vistas and provide public gathering spaces

Close two traffic lanes on Main Street to widen the sidewalks, making the area safer and friendlier for pedestrians

Bring back the open air market in the area near Riverside and Division; or, for year-round access, provide for a public market indoors

Provide a grocery store, post office, library and medical offices so that residents, especially the elderly, may fulfill their daily needs without automotive transportation

Connect residential and commercial spaces with skywalks or pedestrian bridges for all-weather access within the neighborhood while maintaining street-level interest with retail and restaurants

Keep outside spaces open, well-lit and visible to promote security of residents and visitors

Provide recreational opportunities for all ages, with playgrounds for young children, basketball courts and skate parks for older kids, and visibility of outside spaces from within the residences, particularly for frail elderly

Build on the emerging arts and culture scene that already exists in the neighborhood, with art galleries and studio space

Integrate all aspects of living in the neighborhood: "Work, learn, live, play"

Now that the semester has ended, Scarfo hopes the students will carry with them the collaborative skills learned in the interdisciplinary design studio and an openness to ideas from outside their own professions.

"Designers tend to read what's written by designers, but in our work we influence the attitudes of lots of other groups," he says. "It takes the students a while to know this. But in this project, they had to start out by thinking about the people who will be living and working in the space."

As for the design ideas generated by the project, Scarfo hopes eventually to move multigenerational housing in Spokane off the drawing board and into three dimensions. He's working on presentations and articles to bring attention to this cross-disciplinary research, and then, he says, "Maybe we can get some grant funding so we can really start doing some of this."

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