Uncover Place through Co-design: Interview with Dr. Katherine Brookfield and Iain Scott

“…in each of the cities we worked, they were kind of broken places. Old and abandoned buildings or, structures being used in a different way than when first built. Canals and viaducts that are now largely obsolete. Abandoned infrastructure. Places that are forgotten and not safe. The older people we worked with in these places were certainly concerned about safety but also valued more these older, forgotten aspects of the city. They said things like , ‘My uncle worked in that building 50 years ago… I remember my father telling me what he did there…’ They were attached to these objects. They had personal memories in these places that carried great personal weight.”
– Iain Scott, describing an elder-led walking tour in a UK co-design project

How can we design places that are enjoyable to be in and easy to move around in when we are older?

Mobility, Mood and Place (MMP) is a three-year participatory research project that brings together experts from the Universities of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, York and King’s College London and is partnered by a network of stakeholder bodies. Overall, it is investigating how places can be designed collaboratively to make pedestrian mobility easy, enjoyable and meaningful for older people. It builds on evidence that how we experience environments influences our mood and, in turn, our willingness to be active. The project is funded by Research Councils UK under the Lifelong Health and Wellbeing cross council program.

Dr. Katherine Brookfield is a University of Edinburgh Research Fellow and MMP Study Manager. Katherine’s research interests and authorship include community participation and engagement, citizen action and civil society, and the environment’s impact on wellbeing. Iain Scott, an ARB registered architect for 22 years and a U. of Edinburgh collaborator for the past 5, has built a career dedicated to community-led design. We recently talked with Katherine and Iain about their research process and emerging insight.

Tell us about Mobility, Mood and Place as an overarching project. I understand it has several projects investigating similar and interrelated questions.

Katherine: The project is exploring how we can design places that are enjoyable to be in and easy to move around in as we get older. It is a 3 year project, now in the final year. There are three strands to the project, each with a different disciplinary focus:

In “The Life Course of Places, Health, and Mobility” researchers are exploring how physical, built and social environments evolve over time and how they impact on inequalities in health-related mobility as people move into older age.

In “Co-created Environments” we are bringing together researchers, designers-in-training and older participants to envision places, from homes to public spaces, which are inclusive, enabling and inspirational.

In “Environment and Affect” researchers are looking at the emotional dimensions of place using mobile neural imaging methods to record measurable responses to different environments.

Work is ongoing on all strands of the project so it’s a case of watch this space for findings and publications. We have one article published so far which looks at how the design of the home might be implicated in older adults’ active and sedentary behaviours and how we might redesign aspects of the home to better support this age group to lead more active lives.

We were impressed by several images in January of a recent design workshop for the Co-created Environments strand, and a short video of a co-design celebration featuring the EEG headset from the Environment and Affect project. Can you share insights or preliminary impressions from using a student/elder co-design methodology?

Iain: [At the beginning of the co-design process] the expectation among students was that the older people would be conservative in their thinking. They thought their ideas might not be very daring. But their ideas ran delightfully counterintuitive to this expectation. Older people in the East End of London liked the urban graffiti. They saw it as representative of place and responded positively to it. In Manchester some participants helped generate a proposition for housing that floated ABOVE old used viaducts. Unexpectedly daring. Not what you might expect.

Katherine: How much our older participants enjoyed working with the students. They liked the hands on aspect of the approach, developing models, sketching out ideas and just having a conversation with the next generation of designers. All participants enjoyed and seemed to take much away from the exercise.

Iain: To add to Katherine’s point, that this process engages with real people. The live engagement in the studio experience adds a lot of value. And the studio benefits greatly from being involved with real older people, with students have to learn different effective forms of communication to this group, as distinct from their tutors and student peers. In working in a studio (which is also a research project) students are engaged in creating new knowledge. The project can tap into the creative and critical acumen of the students taking part and the older people benefit from the engagement in feeling that they are hopefully contributing to making a better world.

Katherine mentioned earlier that an age-friendly place includes green views and natural light. Is there anything else you can share about what workshop participants expressed? What did they say made an environment age-friendly?

Katherine: People were thinking ahead about aging in place. It made me think about my own life. They wanted lifts, parking, greenspace and bus routes. They wanted to have shops and other such facilities in easy reach and appreciated environments that provided opportunities to interact with others.

Habitats for Happy Ageing design review and celebration brought local elders and students together.

What practical advice would you share with similar planners or researchers when implementing community co-design?

Iain: We learned over time how to do many things better. How long you engage people in activities is crucial. We utilized students skills in making models and drawings quickly, which listened, interpreted and responded to the older participants ideas. It is important to keep a certain pace going but for shorter periods of time.

Katherine: One of the things that we are hoping to produce is a co-design brochure with a set of recommendations for different audiences. A key thing we’ve learnt is the need to provide different tools. Someone might want to build a model, another might rather write down their views, another might favour having a conversation. Enough facilitators is also important, they help to draw out people’s contributions.

Iain: Also, allowing people (to as far as possible) determine the form of their own engagement. People may be shy about communication in public. Afford everyone an opportunity to contribute. The other thing for me as a designer is the importance of gathering knowledge about a place before you do a workshop there. Students shared their ideas and knowledge about the places we were working before we did our co-design sessions. In the co-design, we could uncover the place through the users eyes.

For readers who likely have a diversity of experiences, what would you want them to know about your project, about what you have learned so far?

Katherine: Where possible, take part in the community design meetings that are offered. If you are taking part, your ideas can result in change in your community. Take advantage of any opportunities.

Iain: From my point of view, as an architect, people need to realize you can’t fix everything with co-design. It can generate an enormous amount of different forms of knowledge that wouldn’t be typically available to designers through desktop research. But there needs to be clear analysis of the products of co-design to allow designers a deeper form of knowledge about people and places that can lead to more informed decisions about creative propositions.

Katherine: To find out more about our work and for the latest updates and findings please see our website.

[Feature Image credit: MMP. Source.]