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It is not enough to create universally designed spaces; rather it is important to create spaces that actually promote intergenerational exchange and nurture a sense of community.

– Thang and Kaplan, 2013

Until recently, very little attention has been given to the impact of the physical environment on the quantity and quality of intergenerational relations. The design of your space should support the overall goals of your intergenerational shared site (e.g., fostering social contact and reducing loneliness, improving functional abilities, enhancing cognitive and socioemotional skills, promoting healthy behaviors). Physical proximity ALONE is not enough to generate meaningful intergenerational engagement. In fact, because of the pandemic crisis, we are recognizing that physical proximity may not always be required for intergenerational relationships.

An intergenerational shared site is more than multiple programs serving different ages coming together in the same space. It is a place that intentionally focuses on intergenerational exchange and engagement, promotes a sense of belonging, and has special meaning for participants of different ages. The way you design the physical environment can affect how children and older adults relate to each other as well as impact their socioemotional development, health, and well-being.

3.1 Concept and Theory

As you begin to design your shared site, think about ways you can integrate  the concept of intergenerational contact zones and human development theory into your planning.

Intergenerational contact zones. In a recent book edited by Kaplan et al. (2020), researchers from around the world explore the concept of intergenerational contact zones, “spatial focal points for different generations to meet, interact, build relationships, and if desired, work together to address issues of local concern.” These zones can include newly created spaces and/or existing spaces that are transformed into relational hubs. Intergenerational contact zones can serve as a conceptual, programmatic and design tool to help developers of shared sites create places that intentionally foster meaningful intergenerational encounters.

For more information on intergenerational contact zones, go to Intergenerational Contact Zones: A Compendium of Applications and the Many Dimensions of ICZ.

Human development theory. Understanding key developmental tasks of both early childhood and old age can help you design a place that will meet the cognitive, functional, and socioemotional needs of participants. A recent article by Norouzi (2019) focuses on the importance of incorporating human development theories into architectural design.

One intergenerational shared site highlighted in the article created a “village-like” environment with six classrooms and two Adult Day Care rooms that were designed as individual buildings sharing one large and two small outdoor courtyards. This design created spaces that are separate yet connected, offering privacy and comfort while creating interactive opportunities through shared space and openings (e.g., windows, doors, and removable walls that can be opened or closed to adjacent indoor or outdoor spaces). It provides opportunities to foster identity through the building of intergenerational relationships.

The architects of another shared site utilized Piaget’s theory of cognitive development that suggests children develop by exploring and interacting with their world to understand people, objects, and concepts.  The architects designed low windows between adjacent classrooms to allow children to see what their younger and older classmates are doing. Younger, non-walking toddlers, for example, can see the walking toddler group in their classroom. The architects also designed visual and auditory connections between the children’s and elders’ environments, including operable windows in the children’s classrooms that face a walking track for elders and elders’ residential units that face the children’s playground. Such architectural conditions offer opportunities for passive and interactive connections that prepare children for new experiences and inform them of future life stages.