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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The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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