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In the long list of barriers that prevent older people from getting out and about, seating, or the lack of it can be decisive. Statistics show that as much as 80% of a 65+-year-old’s typical day is spent indoors, so knowing that there’s seating outdoors can provide a vital psychological prop as well as a very real physical support to enable confident, easy movement through space that most of us take for granted.

The standard response to this all-too-familiar concern is to call for local authorities to provide more benches. There are, however, other – perhaps better - ways of creating supportive, age-inclusive spaces that go beyond modifying the obvious environmental objects such as benches. Physical infrastructure, such as street furniture is only ever one dimension of the built environment.

Take, the Take-A-Seat initiative in Age-Friendly Manchester for instance, where, last year, community organisers started distributing ‘Age-Friendly’ chairs to local businesses. The local shops started signing up to a local Age-Friendly Charter, making it clear that older people were welcome to come in and take a seat when they’re in need of a rest – with no obligation to buy or consume anything on the premises.

Borrowed from the Take-a-Seat initiative in New York, the project demonstrates the kind of flexible thinking that makes use of what already exists (a warm shop on the high street), and that supporting older people’s mobility outdoors extends beyond the public realm of the street (and the local highways department) – into the private but familiar space of the local butcher’s, baker’s – the local café … providing an alternative and more convivial social infrastructure in the landscape of age-inclusive spaces.

For us as designers, community workers, policymakers, as residents – this means thinking about the urban environment in a different way. Not simply as a checklist of physical features and amenities to be installed or removed – but as a social network and resource as much as anything else. Projects like Take-a-Seat, demonstrate a flexible way of thinking how spaces are used day in out and how they might be used in different ways. There is an accommodation here of the idea of ‘borrowing’ the ostensibly private space of a local shop as a public-use space for rest. And it encourages us to think about the built environment not simply in terms of physical fabric and permanent fixtures but in terms of temporary, shared uses.

 And then there are the knock-on-effects that these social initiatives so often start up: the added value of sharing space… as taking-a-seat means not just having a place to sit and rest, but finding a bit of warmth, social interaction and, often, if needed, the use of the shop’s toilet too. For the age-inclusive designer, thinking about age-inclusive spaces means engaging, more flexibly but, ultimately, also more humanely, with people’s ordinary, everyday interactions and use of urban space within the existing social fabric of a local neighbourhood.

What do you think needs to happen to make the UK the best country to grow older in?

What concerns you most about growing older and why?

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