An Expert Blind Spot: Fear of Falling

Back in the 1980s…

 

Back in the mid-1980s, my social planning firm did a roaring trade in ageing. Every Sydney developer fantasized about making a fortune in retirement housing. We were a small firm of social planners – trying variously to dissuade them or help them. Most were beyond help: so gripped by greed that they could not discuss matters as banal as gerontology. Blessedly, the fashion passed and we returned to homelessness and poverty (not ours – our subject matter).

Seating Design

Seating Design

 

The good thing was that we learned so much about the physical and psychological factors associated with ageing. Then in my forties, I could not imagine my own elderhood; it was a distant reality. My most brilliant employee, in her early twenties, was a young architecture graduate.


Together we trawled through volumes of research and crafted detailed site-planning and design guidelines for older people’s housing. Tromping around retirement villages, cursing their failings, we became experts in non-slip surfaces, sheltered seating, walking circuits, natural surveillance, ramp design, handrails… And, considering the older residents themselves: limited visual acuity and peripheral vision, susceptibility to glare, inability to hold a mental map, disorientation in space and, most emphatically, fear of falling.

 

Falling down

Recently, a dear friend of mine fell and broke her hip (she’s 79). She was squatting to inspect a cupboard when a mouse jumped out and startled her, causing her to fall backwards. She spent a month in the hospital and is recovering well. But now my feisty friend (who walked the width of England in her early seventies) emails to say she’s afraid of going out for a walk on crutches.

 

Afraid?

 

Once I might have found that hard to believe.

 

But now I understand.

 

Not paying attention

A few years ago, not paying attention (actually peering somewhat rudely at a building under construction), I slipped on roadside gravel and dislocated my shoulder. It hurt a lot. I was terrified of falling again; I began to feel fragile, old and crippled. A wise friend instructed me to return and walk confidently past the house. After I did that repeatedly, my fear abated. To combat my fear of knocking my shoulder, our compassionate local hospital nurse recommended a sling when I travelled by plane. Who would be mean enough to knock a nice old lady with her arm in a sling? It worked a treat. (As did the odd pre-booked wheelchair for long air journeys.)

Boston Sunday Globe storm_crop_small

The Blizzicane

Recently, I spent a month teaching at Harvard: the highlight of my career. And a shocking and salutary experience for a person turning seventy.

I feared my boots (from Myers department store in Adelaide) would not pass muster but my Boston host thought I might survive February.

How wrong she was!

A week into my visit, the fiercest blizzard in 57 years blanketed Boston.

Massive.

A Blizzicane. Nearly a metre of snow fell in a few hours.

 

Outside my friend's house

Outside my colleague’s house after the blizzard and before the snowplows arrived to bank the snow

After we dug ourselves out, I took my credit card to Eastern Mountain Sports in Harvard Square but fear had me in its grip. Now I had warm boots with good tread but I was absolutely terrified.   Terrified of the footpaths at night (our classes ended at 6 pm; taxis were out of the question).

 

Not surprisingly, every path on the campus of America’s premier university was plowed within seconds.

 

 

 

All clear at Harvard!

All clear at Harvard!

That wasn’t my problem.

My problem was low-density suburbia.

Despite Boston’s admirable transit network, suburban Boston is crap for pedestrians.   Everyone drives gigantic cars with snow tyres. There I was in my overpriced `showerproof’ down coat (bought in Melbourne in January) and new boots that weighed a ton. And a backpack full of books and a laptop.

My nightly walk home from the Harvard bus was six long blocks along poorly lit and partly plowed footpaths (and out into the street at the unshovelled patches). Sharing the carriageway with the cars – all of us skeetering between high snowbanks through rutted snow.

 

God!

All I could think of was my dislocated shoulder. And my fear of falling.

 

Actually, that’s not true. My shoulder worries paled in comparison to Fear of the American Medical System! Even with travel insurance, I imagined myself chained to a hospital bed, held to ransom with a broken arm, leg, shoulder, hip . . . you name it . . . in a hospital charging a trillion dollars a day.

I’d taken an elderly Canadian friend to hospital in Honolulu five years ago and she’d barely escaped!

 

Meanwhile, my younger colleague completely discounted my fears. The same fears we’d researched decades earlier.

 

What’s your problem? The snow will melt. It’s only six blocks. You’ve got boots. You’re sorted.

Femme devant paper-board

 


Raffi to the Rescue

My Armenian cousin, a long-time Boston resident (and my age) was my saviour.  Before the snow melted, he took immediate action to avoid my melting down. Brooking no interference, he moved me – coat, books, boots, laptop and decaf tea bags – into his apartment in Charlestown (a dense inner city neighbourhood with well-lit streets, plowed and navigable). Close to the subway and with caf©s and pubs to die for.

 

Raffi's street in Charlestown


And there I stayed for several charmed weeks, happily travelling about Boston on public transit. Grateful for the blessings of his generous hospitality.


(Maybe blood is thicker than water?)


The take-home messages from my story?

 

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that this experience had a profoundly unsettling effect on me.

I cried a lot.

 

And then (finally), I got to thinking. What can I make of this?

What can I learn? What can we learn?

 


First, as our Baby Boomer generation ages, we need to understand mobility – and immobility. It’s not just physical; it’s also psychological.

 

Second, we’d better start talking openly about these matters and not be afraid or ashamed. (What’s there to be ashamed of, in any case?)

 

We're going to have learn how to ask for help

We’re going to have learn how to ask for help

Third, we’ll need supports. And we’d better get them in place before an emergency. We need to know how and where to ask for help.

My friend with the mending hip is well networked into her community where she’s lived since 1974. She’s having gourmet meals delivered and local people come to clean her house as part of a community program. She’ll be fine.



The age-friendly neighbourhoods initiative is a good way to start. South Austalia has made a good beginning:

https://www.sa.gov.au/upload/franchise/Seniors/Office%20for%20the%20Ageing%20-%20Publications/Publications/Age%20friendly%20local%20gov.pdf

 

Fourth, we must accept that some of our younger colleagues are firmly in denial about ageing – ours and theirs. You know the types: the cyclists, yoga enthusiasts, marathon runners, extreme athletes”¦ (Please pass the chocolate”¦)

 

As an example, take my younger colleague. She has a lot to learn.

 

Sad but true: ageing is an expert blind spot.

 

By speaking out about our fear and demonstrating our resourcefulness, we can teach her.

 

So that she can teach her students.

 

And we all can benefit.

 

I guess, in the end, that it’s all about care. (Didn’t I write a PhD thesis about that?)

 

care

Please Spare Manitoba!

 

Manitoba in the early days
Manitoba in the early days

 

What now?

 

I never thought I’d see the day! One of the best examples of medium-density housing in Australia is up for redevelopment! How can this be?

 

Where is our memory?

 

Is new always better?

 

Don’t we know what’s good when we see it?

 

 

One of my fears about the redevelopment of this site is that the shared open space will be lost.

It’s the heart and soul of Manitoba and it’s its best feature.

Removing shared open space: a fashion we’d be best to forget!

A fashion in the development nowadays, promoted by New Urbanists seeking to maximize developers’ profits, is to remove shared space from higher density housing. This is such a massive social error that it defies understanding.

The hierarchy of open space

It is generally accepted by social designers that there is a hierarchy of open space in any urban or residential area.

 

First, there is private open space (the balconies, yards, courtyards, terraces, decks, patios and other private outdoor spaces that are associated with a private dwelling).

 

Second is shared open space, the territory of a group of dwellings and the primary play space for pre-schoolers.

 

Finally, we have public open space, which can be accessed by anyone: parks, plazas, community gardens and any other pace that does not belong to a specific dwelling or group of dwellings.

 

For many years — decades, actually, New Urbanist designers and developers, bent on “neo-traditionalist” designs and grid road patterns, have sought to remove the central level of the hierarchy: shared open space. They argue that the function of shared open space can easily be taken up by neighbourhood parks. The reasons are clearly about profit maximisation, as there are not legitimate other reasons fro removing this space or violating the integrity of a hierarchy that has stood the test of time.

 

All the recent research on natural pay, child development and “Nature-Deficit Disorder” focuses on the importance of “near nature” in the early years fo a child’s life. And, with the increase in single-parent families and many parents experiencing post-partum depression and feeling uncomfortable about venturing into the the wider urban domain, this piece of nature is all the more important.

Ian Hannaford

One of the best examples of shared open space is the beautiful public housing estate designed in the 1970s by South Australian architect, Ian Hannaford: the Manitoba development. The care and sensitivity of this design have made it a popular site for visits by overseas planners and architects for decades.

 

Ian Hannaford
Ian Hannaford

 

The care with with Hannaford (and the Housing Trust planners and architects who assisted him) provided for natural surveillance (“eyes on the street”) from the neighboring  dwellings while allowing residents to maximise their privacy, spoke to a sensitivity that we rarely see in current housing designs.

The subtle but sensitive approaches to “cut-out” fencing allowed residents to add to their fencing and/or provide landscaping if they sought greater privacy chose not to participate in the chidlrne’s play in the central shared space.

 

Cut-out fencing allows views out or privacy
Cut-out fencing allows views out or privacy

 

Qualities of shared open space

Clare Cooper Marcus, a specialist in this field and now an Emerita Professor, argues that shared open space must have specific qualities. It   can be a highly significant component of the neighborhood landscape if it meets the following criteria:

 

(1)                 It is bounded by the dwellings it serves and is clearly not a public park;

 

(2)         Entry points into this space from a public street or sidewalk are designed so that it is clear that one is entering a setting which is not public space;

 

(3)         Its dimensions and the height-to-width ratio of buildings to outdoor space create a human-scaled setting;

 

(4)         Each dwelling unit bounding the shared outdoor space has access to an adequately sized private outdoor space (patio, yard, balcony) which forms a buffer between the residence and the common area;

 

(5)         There are clear boundaries and easy access between what is private (dwelling unit, patio, yard) and what is shared;

 

(6)         As much care is focused on the layout, circulation patterns, planting plan, furnishings, lighting, etc., of the shared outdoor space as is normally focused on the dwelling interiors. In particular, the design needs to focus on children (play equipment, paths for wheeled vehicles, areas for exploratory play, etc.) since research shows that children will comprise more than 80% of the users of such spaces if they are designed with the above criteria in mind.

 

(7)         The scale of such a space can vary from the urban, rectilinear courtyards of St. Francis Square to the more rambling suburban greenways of Village Homes as long as all the above six guidelines are followed, thus ensuring that the space is perceived as unambiguously neither private nor public, but shared.

 

The arguments in favour of shared open space can be summarised as follows:

 

Arguments for shared open space

 

  1. CPTED (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design): Capable guardianship possible within territory controlled by residents
  • Children are vulnerable users of residential environment

 

  • Do not always understand which places are safe for them to use

 

  • Can be victims of predatory practices

 

  • Parental fears can inhibit children’s use of the environment (Paul Tranter)

 

  • Attention to CPTED principles will reduce potential for limiting children’s independent mobility

 

 

  1. Education for sustainability: Microcosm of the wider environmental world: essential for child’s environmental literacy and ethical development

 

  • Diversity of urban environment: learning ground for children’s ecological values

 

  • Environments that communicate   sustainability are important

 

  • Educate children (and adults) to value sustainability

 

  • Valuing sustainability and intergenerational equity communicates that we value children and their futures

 

  • Children grow into ecologically literate and responsible adults

 

  • The environment is a communicating medium.

 

  • It communicates what we value.

 

  1. Child development and safety: Microcosm of the wider social world: necessary for child’s social and physical development

 

    • Shared space is microcosm of the wider social world: necessary for child’s physical and social development

 

  1. Equity and cultural diversity: Young children in some households (and some young girls) not permitted to go alone beyond sight and calling distance of home

 

Young children in some households (and some young girls) not permitted beyond sight and calling distance of home without an adult

  • Males tend to dominate outdoor play

 

  • Older boys and teenagers will dominate most attractive play areas

 

  • Girls play less often in parks than boys do

 

  • Girls tend to play significantly closer         to home

 

Children (especially girls) need opportunities for private social play

 

Summary:

 

CPTED:

  • Clear sense of territory: what is private or shared (reduces excuse-making)
  • Recognising (and confronting) strangers
  • Expressing capable guardianship
  • Building a sense of community

Sustainability:

  • Nature-deficit disorder
  • Learning and practicing ecology at home
  • Near nature
  • Personal health and ecosystem health linked
  • Cooler neighbourhoods (reduce heat islands)

 

Equity:

  • Low-income people can’t travel far for outdoor recreation
  • Some cultures won’t let women and girl children go far for recreation
  • Without shared space, some young girls will not be permitted to leave the dwelling or the yard

 

We remove shared open space from medium-density housing at our peril.

Let’s keep the Manitoba development as it is.

The brilliant example of shared open space in the Manitoba development in the South-East corner of Adelaide needs to be preserved.

Let’s keep it for its architectural value, for its housing quality and for its residents, as well as an example of how to get it right in terms of design and sensitive provision of shared open space that can benefit all residents.

 

Access to "near nature" supports child development
Access to “near nature” supports child development

PLEASE SPARE MANITOBA!!!

 

Appreciating a Mentor: Clare Cooper Marcus

22 June 2009, 8:06 am

 

 

I met my mentor, Clare Cooper Marcus in 1973. So we’ve been friends and colleagues for over 35 years. She and her husband, Stephen, were visiting Australia from California.

 

“You’d like my wife,” Stephen remarked.

 

Stephen was right: I liked his wife. Finding a shared interest in almost everything from spirituality to medium-density housing, we formed a friendship that endures today.

 

I’m the one who decided that Clare was my mentor. It doesn’t detract from “friend”, in my view. It just deepens it.

 

Sometimes I feel that Clare is my “tester”. Now a retired professor, she discovers something, explores all its dimensions, tells me about it and how to “do” it and then I follow along, somewhat shyly and perhaps reluctantly, in her footsteps.

 

In the late seventies, when I spent a couple of years teaching at her university in Berkeley, we’d launch forth on our famous “site visits” (mostly for fun but ostensibly as research for our book, Housing as if People Mattered, University of California, 1986), complete with a full kit: thermoses of tea, china cups, cloth napkins and homemade biscuits.

 

Morning tea was as essential ritual. We’d camp in a dingy courtyard of a public housing estate or an equally depressing open space in a new gated community, unpack our treasures and share our repast.

 

 

Clare’s “Space Cookies” a chocolate-and-oatmeal shortbread delicacy, were a great incentive for me to trudge with her through boring housing estates and display villages with (what we deemed to be deceptive) three-quarter-sized furniture. We were rarely polite to those we found responsible for some of the abominations of that housing form we discovered between 1973 and the present day. (I look forward to another round of “site visits” in September this year when I visit Clare.)

 

In my new book, co-authored with Dianna Hurford and Christine Wenman, Creative Community Planning: Transformative Practices for Working at the Edge (Earthscan, 2010), I say this:

 

The blessings that the courageous and poetic Clare Cooper Marcus continues to bring to my life are chronicled in many places in this book. We’ve been friends since 1973. We wrote a book together, Housing as if People Mattered, in 1986 and it’s still in print! I can attribute most of my journeying in creative and spiritual realms to her spirited encouragement.

Although I was never, formally, Clare’s student, I am that student. And I bow deeply in gratitude to my mentor.

 

English-born Clare’s lived in the same house in Berkeley for thirty-five years. Her kitchen is a marvel of “house as a mirror of the self”, as is her bountiful garden.

 

I’ve memorialized both in a story called “The Warm Kitchen”, which you can download from this link: The Warm Kitchen

 

 

One of the things Clare taught me is about guided visualisation, a topic I’ll explore in future blogs.

 

I learned what this process can be and how a rich and deeply moving engagement with the past or the future is vastly different from the boring and “rational” so-called “visioning” approaches used by most planners and engagement practitioners.

 

Clare’s work on the “Environmental Autobiography” is legendary and a must-read for design students and those in environment-behaviour research.

 

Some of us are blessed with family. Others have wonderful friends. I belong to the second category. The family I have is great but there’s not many of them and most live far away.

 

A wise friend once told me when I was feeling lonely for “family” that “spirit is thicker than blood”.

 

Clare Marcus is not my blood relation.

 

But after 36 years of friendship, her spirit flows in my blood.

 

Clare on her birthday, 2009

Some reading:

 

Marcus, C.C. (1978) ‘Remembrance of landscapes past,’ Landscape vol 22, no 3, pp34-43

 

Marcus, C.C. (1979) Environmental Autobiography, Working Paper 301, January, Institute for Urban and Regional Development, University of California, Berkeley

 

Marcus, C.C. (2006) House as a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home, second edition, Nicolas-Hayes, Inc, Lake Worth, Florida

 

https://www.amazon.com/House-As-Mirror-Self-Exploring/dp/0892541245

 

Marcus, C.C. Iona Dreaming: the Healing Power of Place, a Memoir:   https://www.amazon.com/Iona-Dreaming-Healing-Power-Place/dp/0892541571

www.ionadreaming.com

 

Marcus, C.C. and Sarkissian, W. (1966) Housing as if People Mattered: Site Design Guidelines for Medium-Density Family Housing, University of California, Berkeley

 

https://www.amazon.com/Housing-People-Mattered-Medium-Density-Development/dp/0520063309

 

Sarkissian, Wendy, “The Warm Kitchen”. Downloadable from this link: The Warm Kitchen