The Impact of
the Maltese Urban Environment
on the Elderly Pedestrian
Urban populations and the proportion of elderly are on the rise which has created a growing interest in the influence of the built environment on people's lives. Assessing the impacts on the elderly becomes important because therein lies the value of the built environment - to make it safe for all to enjoy. The dissertation focused on determining how the elderly make use of public space, how these spaces enable or hinder their movement, and what the consequences of this impact are on their lives and well-being.
Qualitative methods were explored to respond to these ‘how and why’ questions, leading to the case study method. Data about the selected neighbourhood and its elderly users was collected using analysis and observation to explore the neighbourhood; sit-down interviews to gain participants’ perceptions; and walk-along interviews combining observation and interviewing to examine experiences as they occur, compensating for the limitations of the first two methods. Qualitative data was thematically analysed to highlight critical issues.
Question 1 - How are the elderly using public space?
Decreased mobility associated with ageing has an understandable impact on their use of public space. Case study analysis showed that the elderly use public space for both recreational and for daily needs, whilst the participants specified that they only walked when they needed to, and not for recreation. A key result was that they feel discouraged and deterred by the urban context, reflecting the results of the analysis that it is disabling, therefore potentially creating feelings of marginalization.
Question 2 - How do spaces hinder or enable their movement?
Subjects commended the availability of shops at close distances around their homes, where convenient distances encourage walking. Lack of seating was often raised as an issue, as this could help to support them to walk for longer. Participants unanimously complained about the condition of pavements, supporting the findings of the analysis. Critical factors included trip hazards, inadequate widths, sloped surfaces and poor separation from traffic. Other traffic safety factors include the issue of too few pedestrian crossings; whilst critical factors included road congestion, careless driving and traffic speed. The participants reported they feel safer or enjoy walking in routes with low vehicle activity.
Question 3 - What are the consequences of this impact on their lives and well-being?
Apart from the physically disabling effects of the environment, the walk-alongs revealed how elderly pedestrians interact with spaces: using great caution whilst walking such as watching out for grooves on pavements or oncoming traffic. This creates apprehension and stress, and reduces their desire to walk. The environment is physically and socially limiting them because a lack of spaces decreases their opportunity for outings, socialisation and forming community ties. This creates feelings of isolation and loneliness whilst an aversion to their environment also diminishes their independent mobility outside their homes, increases their dependence on others.
The findings of the study contribute to literature focused on the Maltese elderly, drawing attention to the ways in with the urban context is restricting them due to spaces that scarcely cater for able-bodied pedestrians, let alone these users. While the findings here were not necessarily generalisable to other urban morphologies in Malta, similar studies in other urban contexts would provide a more comprehensive analysis on this matter. The improvement of the urban condition would require an investigation into the cause, identifying what is impeding their improvement, and how the improvements can be obtained - analysing and testing possible solutions to identify what needs to change.
If the purpose of design and planning is to organise settlements to offer the best opportunities for current and future generations, then the assessment of the impacts of the environment on the elderly is an important consideration to make environments safe, easier to use and inhabit, for all.