Places for People - Assessing user needs

© Anne R. Beer,
Map21 Ltd, 2003

How do we know what users of spaces need - those less able bodied

Environmental settings to support the particular needs of those who have difficulties moving around


The problems of the elderly

In the UK, as in many Western European countries, over 20% of the population are over 60. Of these, most live at home and either look after themselves or are looked after by relatives/ carers. We have an increasing problem of the very elderly being looked after by relatives who are themselves classed as elderly. Aging is no longer seen as a problem that we can solve by placing people in residential homes. The elderly are part of our daily lives in the city - they are ourselves in the future. They need and deserve a high quality of life just like the rest of us, but too often do not achieve this because the immediate environment appears to become more hostilewhen they get older as it becomes more difficult to move through it.

There is no doubt that people who stay in their own homes when they become old are the happiest and the healthiest (the two seem to go closely together, since remaining in control of one's own life at home is a crucial factor). To help people to stay in their own homes, designers need to do all they can to make the external environment as user friendly as possible.

- how illness lessens mobility

If we are to design satisfactory settings for the daily lives of older people, we need to know something about how illness affects their lives. The most common illnesses are:

  • arthritis and bone disease
  • strokes
  • heart disease
  • Parkinson's disease

Characteristically all these illnesses affect locomotion, causing problems when interacting with the physical environment.

Other problems reducing movement are:

Senile Dementia (and Alzheimer's disease), which affects an increasing proportion of people in direct relationship to age: 20% of the over eighties are affected to some extent.

Such illnesses lead to the sufferers becoming increasingly confused so that they can no longer be allowed to wander freely for fear of damaging themselves, or causing an accident.

Visual and hearing impairment

There is also a range of physical problems which limit the way the elderly can interact with their immediate environment, both in and out of the home.

For instance, as designers of the built environment we have to recognise and design solutions for such problems as:

  • muscle weakness which leads to poor grip
  • kneeling and bending difficulties which make it difficult to reach things on the ground
  • breathlessness which means that people can find climbing long ramps and staircases almost insuperable.


Illness/disability defined

We can say that illness is the way that the disease makes us react to our surroundings and that a disability is the impact of the disease on the person.

What is considered a disability can vary from person to person and place to place. In part the perception that a person has a disability is related to the detail of the physical environment within which the person is operating. We need to recognise that the impact of a disability varies with what the person is doing - our job as environmental designers is to minimise the problems caused to those with disabilities by their immediate environment.

The number of people in our society who have special needs is unknown, but it involves many more than the official statistics, which tend to deal with people who are disabled enough to need special monetary support from the State.

There is little doubt, however, that the numbers of people with disabilities are increasing, as modern medicine keeps more and more of us alive for longer. New methods of surgery often help people to live longer, but leave them less physically fit in someway - for example, it may be breathlessness caused by walking up slopes or stairs, but if an elderly person cannot reach their front door without getting breathless after climbing flights of steps, then they may perceive themselves as disabled.

Modern advances in medicine have also enabled more people to live with serious disabilities from birth.


The elderly and disability

The way in which we design and plan for disabilities has an impact on a large proportion of the population, particularly the elderly. At present at least 60% of all people with disabilities are elderly, with two thirds of all men involved being over 65 years old. This group has special problems associated with coping with their disability, at the same time as coping with the particular problems of becoming more frail. For instance, with age most people lose weight and are much more likely than younger, more nimble people to be blown over by the wind, particularly when they are using sticks and their sense of balance is less sure.

Improving the quality of life for those with disabilities

Whilst the number of people with disabilities increases, modern technology has been able to improve the quality of life for many - electric wheelchairs, for instance, have given many people a freedom that was impossible in the past.

With age the likelihood of people having multiple special needs increases. Therefore, as designers we need to be aware that we shall often have to cope with situations where the users of the environmental settings which we are designing may have difficulty with seeing and hearing clearly, as well as with walking around.

Disability is a family affair

Disability is a family affair - the environmental settings we produce also have to be satisfactory for those who accompany people with special needs. For example, marking routes as 'wheelways' so that those accompanying the wheelchair user do not find themselves detouring to avoid steps they did not know about in advance; having plenty of sitting areas with sufficient hard surface beside the bench for the family or friends to sit comfortably alongside the wheelchair user.


Outdoor spaces -The importance of the outdoors to the elderly and those who have difficulties moving around the housing area

For a variety of reasons it is important that the elderly are encouraged to be outside as much as possible, not least to help their general state of health, which is improved if people move around as much as possible. Sun can be good for older people - for instance, it can help certain bone conditions. Exercise is important psychologically as well as physically. So for all these reasons we need to provide what will be perceived as attractive outdoor spaces, to encourage older people to spend as much time as possible outside.

The elderly tend to see a well kept garden as signifying that they are coping well with life. This is why they can get what might seem to younger people unnecessarily upset when they can no longer look after the garden. So advice from the designer on how to look after it and change it to be easier to maintain, can be as important as the original design.

The elderly are frightened of intruders, since the intrusion of vandals or criminals emphasises that they are no longer in control. As designers we need to ensure safe, secure territory around the home.

The elderly enjoy hobbies, as do younger people, but frequently in special housing there is no room for this. We need to make space - outside if necessary. Older people sometimes have a greater interest in nature and, therefore, the provision of plant species, feeding tables, water containers that will attract birds, wildlife and insects, will go someway to make the place they live in more interesting.

User needs

Settings and users


Assessing user needs




High density



Seeing spaces


Designing for Children's Play in Housing Areas


for the
less able bodied

The elderly

Outdoor spaces

Detailed design

Links and References

Books and papers

Carsten, D.Y., Housing and the outdoor spaces for the elderly, in Cooper Marcus and Francis,1990, People Places, van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.

Stoneham, Jane and Thoday, Peter (1996: 2nd edition ) Landscape design for elderly and disabled people, Garden Art Press.

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Text and illustrations (unless stated otherwise) © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2001, all rights reserved.
Terms of use: Any involved in education or training may copy the contents of these web pages with the proviso that they always make reference to the origial copyright.

© Anne Beer, 2000
Web pages by
Map21 Ltd

Latest update12 Dec 2003