Guest blog: Sophie Handler – Ageing facilities: a creative practice of age-conscious interventions

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Ageing Facilities is an alternative urban research initiative that uses creative design to explore other ways of experiencing the urban environment in older age. Based on an ongoing programme of playful urban interventions it sets up small moments that temporarily reconfigure and re-imagine everyday relationships to urban space and, in the process, starts to challenge the more utilitarian-functional preoccupations of conventional elderly-specific design.


There is, arguably, a tendency within much age-focused design to focus primarily on designing for the physical needs of an ageing population: supplying design ‘solutions’ via a limited palette of assistive devices and aids (with a limited degree of ‘play’ in the design itself). There is a similar tendency within urban design strategies to attend to a baseline set of physical needs: exploring and problem-solving older people’s experience of the urban environment through the more literal terms of ‘mobility’, ‘access’, and the measurable breadth of elderly ‘action range’.

To attend to these baseline, physical needs is, arguably, a vital aspect of any elder-focused design but as a repeated design convention can end up marginalizing other less easily defined ‘needs’ (beyond the ageing body).

There is, however, a different model of design practice that operates outside these more standard problem-solving conventions and that offers a potentially different route for age-focused urban design. Here, design is used instead as an exploratory tool, to imagine and facilitate other kinds of urban experiences that are qualitative, experiential but not necessarily functional, or straightforwardly useful in the conventional sense. Design in this context might be used not as a bodily aid (an assistive physical device) but to explore instead, the (small) pleasures and possibilities of experiencing, for instance, a familiar place, (a park or a streetscape) in a different way – which is what Ageing Facilities attempts to do.

Through its ongoing programme of temporary urban interventions Ageing Facilities has been testing out this alternative model of creative design on-the-ground, working with older adults and individuals to offer different forms of urban experience through staged urban actions, or through a process of close looking (identifying and amplifying otherwise hidden ways of using urban space in older age).

The interventions range in form: from a semi-illicit tea dance held in a park after dark (with an elders’-only dance class) to a more conventional mapping process that identifies and marks out informal ‘elderly’ sitting spots (low walls, bollards, supermarket shelving), making visible those otherwise hidden acts of urban appropriation (finding a temporary ‘seat’ where formal provision for sitting – a public bench – is lacking). Currently, Ageing Facilities is working on the adaptation of the generic Sholley® trolley (a familiar ‘age’-associated object) reconfiguring it with a set of speakers and CD player into a mobile tool for recalcitrant ‘adolescent-style’ misbehaviour in public.

With their willfully playful-subversive tone these interventions are exploratory as opposed to solutions-driven. The endpoint of these interventions is not a given, fixed solution but a provocation, to question instead: standards of age-appropriate behaviour in public space; questions of elderly visibility and presence; the relative values of risk-taking in older age – what ‘risk’ and norms of behaviour, what ‘transgression’ even in an urban environment might mean, generationally?

Creative forms of design practice (even a set of small-scale temporary interventions like these) can, arguably, offer a valuable alternative to conventional strategies in age-focused design. With its ‘poetic licence’ to think otherwise, creative design initiatives can start to open up the more limited palette of design thinking, drawing attention to those less tangible (less easily quantifiable) issues of risk-taking, desire, and standards of behaviour that are all too often left out of discussions about how we relate, or rather how we might otherwise relate to the urban environment as we grow old.

Sophie Handler

More information
Ageing Facilities is an alternative urban research initiative set up by Dr. Sophie Handler in 2006. Its ongoing programme of temporary urban interventions forms part of Sophie’s broader research around notions of care in urban design for the elderly. Sophie is currently working on the evaluation of a specialist care unit for dementia patients in Lambeth together with the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, Royal Holloway and the charity, Age Exchange.

An exhibition of Ageing Facilities’ work is currently on display until 31 January 2012 at the William Road Gallery, 7-9 William Rd London, NW1 3ER.

For further information please contact Sophie Handler at sophiehandler@gmail.com or info@ageing-facilities.net

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