• Judith Phillips, University of Wales, Swansea

  • Nigel Walford, Kingston University

  • Nigel Foreman, Middlesex University

  • Mike Lewis, Swansea University

  • Ann Hockey, Anglia Ruskin University


  • The Welsh Assembly Government

  • Colchester Borough Council

  • Castleoak Care Partnerships

  • Age Concern Cymru

  • Swansea Network 50+

  • Swansea U3A

  • Clinical Research Collaboration Cymru


Judith Phillips

Aims and objectives

The aim of the project was to determine the mechanisms and strategies used by older people to navigate unfamiliar spaces as drivers, pedestrians and users of public transport.

The project investigated the influences on someone’s ability to cope with unfamiliar environments and examine the extent to which unfamiliar environments curtail autonomy and independence, and lead to social (and environmental) exclusion.

The project also explored how technologies can assist in enabling older people to adapt to or ameliorate change in their environment.


Older people were recruited and assigned into sets as pedestrians, drivers, and public transport users. Filming of unfamiliar spaces and routes in city centres and villages were displayed in a virtual reality cave. The video filming was of a route undertaken as a bus passenger, as a car driver and as a pedestrian on routes in this unfamiliar environment.

A variety of scripts were presented to older people and they were asked to give a detailed narrative as they navigated a route. Their heart rate was monitored while in the reality cave to assess stress levels.

We calibrated people’s physical and perceptual response to using the reality cave with films of familiar spaces within their localities as a passenger, driver and pedestrian. A follow up qualitative interview explored the extent to which older people encounter unfamiliar environments, the issues that arise and interventions that might assist them in navigation.

Planners in the filmed area were invited to meet with the older participants in a workshop to explore the issues. A group of older people travelled to the area to meet the planners and they were taken on the filmed routes.

At this stage, the research team had developed a demonstrator for GIS/GPS taking into consideration the responses and analysis from the reality cave and this technology was used by older people on the route to assess whether it can help them navigate their designated routes.

This was followed by in-depth interviews with the older people involved. Spatial planners were also interviewed to explore their perceptions of older people’s use and requirements in respect of different types of public spaces, signage and environmental ‘furniture’.

The disciplines collaborating include gerontology, psychology, sport science, geography and spatial planning.

Reality cave exercise

Policy implications

The research had relevance for a number of policy areas such as transport policy, housing and urban policy as well as policy in relation to promoting social inclusion. The project aimed to work with transport policy officers in the Welsh Assembly Government and local authorities seeking a closer alignment between transport and land use planning, responding effectively and innovatively to the mobility and accessibility needs and requirements of elderly people, and integrating these into both transport and development plans.

The research touched on housing and urban policy and has significance for the impact and planning of regeneration policies in relation to how people identify with particular areas and familiarise themselves with new environments.

Enabling and empowering older people to use public space also had spin offs for the economy as older people are able to function fully as citizens and consumers if they are able to feel confident to explore new areas.

Product development implications

We worked with the mobile communications industry to design and develop a prototype spatial information system for older people on a Personal Data Assistant.

The research also had benefits for companies exploring the mobile technology market. GPS and GIS can be used by a range of older people, some of whom will have cognitive deficits. Companies will be able to design appropriate assistive technologies for different groups of older people.

Practice implications

The practical outcomes included

  • a standard for clear signage for older people, either through fixed signposting or mobile technologies

  • clarification of how changes in the physical features and users of spaces produce feelings of unease amongst older people, accompanied by learning points on how to ameliorate such changes and improve the ambience of public spaces

  • a toolbox of methods, comprising good practice advice and examples, design checklist and policy flowchart, for local authorities to involve older people in meaningful discourse on the environment