Dementia-friendly places benefit us all – so we should start planning for them

David Cameron (remember him?) speaking about dementia in 2013. Image: Getty.

Dementia is an issue that touches everyone. With an estimated 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today, we all have family and friends who have been affected by this most serious and debilitating illness, with its wide ranging and often misunderstood symptoms.

During his premiership, David Cameron launched the “Dementia Challenge”, which aimed to find a treatment or cure by 2025. We certainly hope that his presidency of Alzheimer’s Research UK, announced last week, will help the medical world meet this immense challenge.

But while we wait for the cure, life goes on for many people living with the disease. And there is a more immediate and more achievable outcome we can do something about: improving the environment to help people live well and independently longer. 

Public interest in wanting to contribute to support and improve the lives of people living with dementia is shown by the fact 215 local communities have already signed up to become Dementia Friendly Communities. This initiative, established by Alzheimer’s Society, galvanises local efforts and support.

While still in the early stages attention is now turning to how the local built environment can impact on the quality of people living with dementia and help them to maintain their independence for longer.

Dementia and Town Planning, new practice advice published this week by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and endorsed by Alzheimer’s Society, demonstrates how good planning can create better environments for people living with dementia. It argues that, if you get an area right for people living with dementia, you also get it right for all older people, for young disabled people, for families with small children – and ultimately for everyone.


So what can town planning contribute? Rather a lot.

Commitment: The RTPI award-winning Plymouth Plan 2011-2031 includes the ambition to become a dementia friendly city by 2031, starting with an audit whether the city’s communities have access to the services they require. It is one of the few councils that has adopted plans that explicitly mention dementia. If more can do the same it would be a good start. 

Detail: Worcestershire County Council have worked with planners from the three South Worcestershire Councils to develop a draft Planning for Health Supplementary Planning Document which contains sections dedicated to “age friendly environments and dementia”. They give urban design advice to create areas that meet the needs of people living with dementia.

Using available tools: As part of Belfast’s successful application to become a World Health Organization age-friendly city it developed an assessment tool to gauge how accessible the built environment is for older people. It carried out walks with people with dementia living in supported housing to gain their opinions and use their experience of the walking environment in their area.  

Asking people with dementia what they need: In Bradford, the Face it Together group is wholly led by people with dementia. They have provided feedback on signage and accessibility, and advised on both a hospital refurbishment and the planning of a Westfield Shopping Centre.

A little bit of lateral thinking: That’s is something planners are good at. As part of a scheme to improve the Conservation Area of the small town of Kirriemuir, Angus council have worked with the Dementia Friendly Kirriemuir Project. The council gave planning permission for the change of use for a piece of derelict land to become a dementia friendly garden with a rent of £1.00 per year. The garden will be is a safe, friendly, outdoor space that people living with dementia and the local community can enjoy.

Aiming for the best: Hogeweyk Village, Netherlands is recognised as a world leader in the design of the facilities and care for its 152 residents living with dementia. They live in groups in 23 specially designed houses. The village has streets, squares, gardens, a park and a range of shops and restaurants where the residents move around independently and safely. These facilities can be used by both Hogeweyk residents and people from the surrounding area.

I have to confess to having rather a vested interest in all of this. I have had ME, an invisible and often misunderstood illness for most of my adult life, and like dementia it affects both my physical health and my cognitive functioning. I have decided to make my home in London, a wonderful city in many ways but quite unforgiving on those who find it more difficult to move around. Try negotiating the multiple escalators and steps of Canary Wharf with a pushchair and an inquisitive toddler. Exhausting doesn’t cover it.

So my point is; if we create places that are suitable to meet the needs of people living with dementia, they will be that little bit kinder for all of us to use.

Sarah Lewis is planning practice officer at the Royal Town Planning Institute.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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