Older people and outdoor environments: Pedestrian anxieties and barriers in the use of familiar and unfamiliar spaces


Phillips J, Walford N, Hockey A, Foreman N & Lewis M (2013) Older people and outdoor environments: Pedestrian anxieties and barriers in the use of familiar and unfamiliar spaces. Geoforum, 47, pp. 113-124.

A limited number of studies look at older people’s use of space outside the ‘home’ environment, particularly unfamiliar, public urban space. Such unfamiliarity can be created through older people travelling as tourists to new areas; as a consequence of urban regeneration; or as a result of cognitive decline, where the familiar becomes unfamiliar. This paper explores the experiences of older people as pedestrians in unfamiliar urban spaces. In looks at two aspects: older people’s spatial anxieties and the barriers (physical, psychological, spatial and social) they perceive and encounter in unfamiliar surroundings. Forty-four participants who took part in a reality cave exercise and a sub group of 10 people who visited an unfamiliar area as pedestrians describe their experience of walking a predetermined route. Given increasing urbanisation and population ageing this is an area of importance to geographers and gerontologists.  Our study showed that there are a number of barriers that are a concern for older people in new environments; these include poor signage, confusing spaces, poor paving and ‘sensory overload’ i.e. noise and complexity of the environment. Landmarks and distinctive buildings were more important to participants than signage in navigating unfamiliar areas. Such experiences can contribute to practice implications for planners in designing neighbourhoods to support older people. Small changes such as placing distance on clearly marked signage; giving further information about particular areas beyond the key tourist points and using landmarks as clear navigational aids are important. This paper also adds to the growing literature on geographical gerontology.

Unfamiliar environments; Barriers; Spatial anxiety; Landmarks; Ageing in place; Older visitors; Pedestrians

Geoforum: Volume 47

Publication date30/06/2013
Publication date online29/04/2013