Our parks and public spaces have great potential to change our communities for the better. By bringing together people from all backgrounds and ages, the public places we all share can combat generational silos, segregation and other age-related issues we are facing as a nation, while helping to ensure equitable access for all. Intergenerational design aims to bring people together through purposeful, mutually beneficial activities that promote greater understanding and respect between generations. Additionally, investing in these spaces fosters value creation by building cohesive communities, encouraging additional investments in neighborhoods and local businesses, and changing the perception of safety.
To be effective, we must look at building intergenerational spaces in two ways. First, existing parks must be evaluated for their intergenerational settings. According to one study, most cities have an average of 18,000 acres of parkland within their borders. These cities have a great opportunity to evaluate usage by residents and leverage these existing assets to create parks that appeal to intergenerational users. Additionally, planners and advocates may need to think creatively and look for opportunities to create new parks in unconventional spaces, to grow capacity for intergenerational recreation spaces within walking distance of where people live. Most importantly, to create truly intergenerational settings, it’s essential to avoid “cookie-cutter” park design and engage the local community as advocates and contributors. Utilizing input, creativity, and innovation in park design can help focus a community’s recreational activities to intergenerational ones that are appropriate for all. Considering landscape detail and infrastructure are both key components of success, as is ensuring the people who will use the park have input into what features are important to them.
There are many ways to begin implementation of intergenerational settings in communities. Pulling a group together to work on community assessments, feedback, and a specific set of outcomes for people of all age groups is a strong start to creating shared goals, and offers hope of making allies out of competitors for public attention and public resources. Every group has its own interests and it’s the challenge of park planners to meet those needs and expectations to adequately serve the population they represent, as well as show support and commitment. In a survey from Generations United and the Eisner Foundation, it was determined that 89% of Americans think serving multiple generations in the same space is a good idea. Additionally, 82% feel multigenerational spaces are a good use of tax revenue. Forge partnerships between like-minded organizations that may be able to help further the mission. Senior centers, hospitals, senior living, day cares, schools, and universities are just a few potential partners.
Advocates also need to challenge local leaders to champion the effort and help prioritize intergenerational use of outdoor spaces, and begin gathering answers to important questions, like:
- How do we include opportunities that intentionally promote intergenerational connection, not just parallel age use?
- What is the best way to train our staff to encourage intergenerational activity?
- How do we shift our mindset to think of people of all age groups as community partners with valuable resources to share?
- How do we fund investments in these critical spaces, while investing in the surrounding community itself?
- How can we work to establish intergenerational policies, standards, and best practice centers of excellence to help make implementation easier?
Initiate learning opportunities by holding community meetings and inviting key stakeholders to share ideas and goals. Gathering feedback in public meetings is a meaningful way to understand community alliances and support. Ensure you implement a variety of ways to gather feedback from all generations on what they feel would contribute to healthy intergenerational initiatives. To be truly inclusive and intergenerational, this feedback would include local residents, families and children, local organizations like civic groups, retirement centers, and other stakeholders before, during and after making design/programming decisions or changes. In order to accommodate all groups, you may need to hold several meetings at different times/days of the week. Not everyone can attend a daytime meeting at city hall, or an evening meeting on the weekend. Be sure to keep the meetings innovative and engaging, to encourage positivity, collaboration, and meaningful feedback. To increase inclusivity in the planning process, you may even want to station staff members, volunteers, or interns at commonly used places like libraries, community centers, shopping areas or transit stations to gather information about and from individuals who may not be regular park users. Be broad in your audience targeting, as the planning process is your first step in intergenerational inclusion. For example, asking older people for their input about open space design provides them with a sense of choice and control that supports their general need to be independent or optimally interdependent. Honoring such needs treats elders with the respect and dignity that they desire and deserve.
Below are some key values that, when shared and discussed in the planning process, can help build support for intergenerational strategies in the context of building healthy communities through play and recreation initiatives:
Multigenerational strategies help generations remain independent, while building a sense of interdependence. While these strategies may seem in conflict, consider how pairing people from different generations can provide opportunities for them to get out, while setting a stage for them to share information, care, nurturing, and support for each other. Young people can develop a sense of value as a resource for older generations to remain active, while elders are viewed as a resource for younger people.
Neighborhood planning is important when considering independence. Can a parent or caregiver easily and safely push a stroller or walk a toddler to a local park? Can a teen or older person walk safely and comfortably to a park to meet a friend? Great intergenerational spaces aren’t just a function of having a green space, built amenities, and programming. If people can’t safely walk to those places, many who would benefit greatly will not be able to participate. Be sure to invite city planners and appropriate government representatives to discuss neighborhood planning to ensure all contributing and responsible parties are available to help shape the plan.
People of all ages have knowledge to share with other generations that may not be exposed to that knowledge. By creating opportunities for shared generations to spend time together, we open the door for intergenerational learning, and therefore understanding, compassion, and support for each other. Asking people of different age groups what learning or teaching opportunities they would enjoy can help shape this part of the scope.
Sample questions to gather intergenerational feedback:
- What interests do each generation have that can be maximized? Which are shared across multiple generational groups?
- How do these interested reflect the community core values?
- How can we best measure the effectiveness of intergenerational programs?
- What organizations can we potentially partner with to gather feedback and participation?
- What unique benefits do potential partner organizations bring to the table?
- What benefits do we contribute to organizations in helping them meet their goals?
- How do we use intergenerational groups to measure the effectiveness of programs?
All people deserve to feel respected and cared for, and to feel that they are contributing. Intergenerational opportunities for play and recreation can serve as a framework to encourage these feelings. This may not be something that city or park planners have a deep enough insight on, so making this a part of the initial discussion may help provide awareness and understanding. Do the various segments of the community feel respected now? If not, why? Be sure community members have a variety of mechanisms to share this information, not all will be comfortable in a public forum.
Planning and Facilitation Tools
Utilize existing tools to evaluate your community and find opportunities for improvement. The AARP offers a web-based interactive tool called the AARP Livability Index to help assess the livability of neighborhoods throughout the U.S. The Index can evaluate livability to help encourage local leaders and policymakers to make communities more intergenerational. AARP’s Walk Audit Toolkit is another resource with tools to help assess walkability of a particular street as well as host walkability events or workshops. To understand where the park deserts are in communities, The Trust For Public Land offers two comprehensive tools, ParkScore for the top 100 cities, and ParkServe, which evaluates smaller communities for parks within a 10-minute walk of where people live. The guides Value Capture in the Commons-Tools for Sustaining Our Public Spaces while Benefiting Existing Communities and Creating Parks for All People are also valuable resources for neighborhoods, municipalities, non-profits, and philanthropic organizations trying to balance how to sustain operations, reinvest in communities, and ensure equitable access for all through investment in the civic commons. Refer to the Resources section of this publication for these and other tools.