Older people's use of unfamiliar space

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As town and city landscapes change through regeneration or decline the use of space changes and previously familiar places may become unfamiliar.

Unfamiliarity can lead to insecurity, disorientation, fear over personal safety and social exclusion. Interest in older people’s use and perception of space and the built environment is growing, particularly among spatial planners. However, there is little knowledge on what influences someone’s ability to cope with unfamiliar environments and the environmental triggers that characterise places as threatening. Consequently planning decisions are not based on sound evidence.

To enable older people to navigate environments which are unfamiliar, spatial information tools can be designed for the benefit of older people as pedestrians, drivers and public transport users. Such a tool will be useful for planners in designing spaces that older people can use.


  • Judith Phillips, University of Wales, Swansea
  • Nigel Walford, Kingston University
  • Nigel Foreman, Middlesex University
  • Mike Lewis, Swansea University
  • Ann Hockey, Anglia Ruskin University


  • The Welsh Assembly Government
  • Colchester Borough Council
  • Castleoak Care Partnerships
  • Age Concern Cymru
  • Swansea Network 50+
  • Swansea U3A
  • Clinical Research Collaboration Cymru

Contact details

Judith Phillips


The aim of the project is to determine the mechanisms and strategies used by older people to navigate unfamiliar spaces as drivers, pedestrians and users of public transport.

The project will investigate the influences on someone’s ability to cope with unfamiliar environments and examine the extent to which unfamiliar environments curtail autonomy and independence, and lead to social (and environmental) exclusion.

The project will also explore how technologies can assist in enabling older people to adapt to or ameliorate change in their environment.


Older people will be recruited and assigned into sets as pedestrians, drivers, and public transport users. Filming of unfamiliar spaces and routes in city centres and villages will be displayed in a virtual reality cave. The video filming will be of a route undertaken as a bus passenger, as a car driver and as a pedestrian on routes in this unfamiliar environment.

A variety of scripts will be presented to older people and they will be asked to give a detailed narrative as they navigate a route. Their heart rate will be monitored while in the reality cave to assess stress levels.

We will calibrate people’s physical and perceptual response to using the reality cave with films of familiar spaces within their localities as a passenger, driver and pedestrian. A follow up qualitative interview will explore the extent to which older people encounter unfamiliar environments, the issues that arise and interventions that might assist them in navigation.

Planners in the filmed area will be invited to meet with the older participants in a workshop to explore the issues. A group of older people will travel to the area to meet the planners and they will be taken on the filmed routes. At this stage the research team will have developed a demonstrator for GIS/GPS taking into consideration the responses and analysis from the reality cave and this technology will be used by older people on the route to assess whether it can help them navigate their designated routes. This will be followed by in-depth interviews with the older people involved. Spatial planners will also be interviewed to explore their perceptions of older people’s use and requirements in respect of different types of public spaces, signage and environmental ‘furniture’.

The disciplines collaborating include gerontology, psychology, sport science, geography and spatial planning.

Reality cave exercise

Policy implications

Policy implications include:

The research has relevance for a number of policy areas such as transport policy, housing and urban policy as well as policy in relation to promoting social inclusion. The project aims to work with transport policy officers in the Welsh Assembly Government and local authorities seeking a closer alignment between transport and land use planning, responding effectively and innovatively to the mobility and accessibility needs and requirements of elderly people, and integrating these into both transport and development plans.

The research touches on housing and urban policy and has significance for the impact and planning of regeneration policies in relation to how people identify with particular areas and familiarize themselves with new environments. Enabling and empowering older people to use public space also has spin offs for the economy as older people are able to function fully as citizens and consumers if they are able to feel confident to explore new areas.

Product development implications include:

We will work with the mobile communications industry to design and develop a prototype spatial information system for older people on a Personal Data Assistant.

The research will also have benefit for companies exploring the mobile technology market. GPS and GIS that can be used by a range of older people, some of whom will have cognitive deficits.. Companies will be able to design appropriate assistive technologies for different groups of older people.

Practice implications:

The practical outcomes will include a standard for clear signage for older people, either through fixed signposting or mobile technologies; clarification of how changes in the physical features and users of spaces produce feelings of unease amongst older people, accompanied by learning points on how to ameliorate such changes and improve the ambience of public spaces; and a toolbox of methods, comprising good practice advice and examples, design checklist and policy flowchart, for local authorities to involve older people in meaningful discourse on the environment.

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