Designing dementia-inclusive neighbourhoods – Community-Engaged Research Initiative

As Canada’s population ages, there is a growing interest in age-friendly and seniors-focused urban planning and design. People living with dementia, most of whom are aged 65 or older, are often grouped together with broader age-friendly community plans. While age- and dementia-friendly community planning and design considerations overlap, there are important differences. People living with dementia experience changes in their cognitive maps of the neighbourhood and sensory perception of their surroundings, posing unique challenges for spatial orientation and wayfinding, which negatively impacts independent and safe mobility in the community.

To respond to this gap, the DemSCAPE project (short for Dementia-inclusive Streets and Community Access, Participation and Engagement) began innovative mixed-methods and community-based research with older adults living with dementia and their care partners in Metro Vancouver and Prince George in 2022. The project is led by gerontology researchers at Simon Fraser University (SFU) with collaborating interdisciplinary researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). 

Three knowledge mobilization tools have been developed contributing to Canadian and international dementia-inclusive community resources: 1) Dementia-inclusive Planning and Design Guidelines to inform municipal planners and decision-makers on physical planning and design to enable communities to become dementia-inclusive; 2) ​Short Documentary Video to increase awareness and understanding of the environmental issues with outdoor walking experiences of three study participants​; and 3) Environmental Audit Tool for community-based dementia advocacy organizations and persons living with dementia to audit the neighbourhood built environment and identify intervention projects.

With funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada and Alzheimer Societies of British Columbia and Canada, DemSCAPE researchers collaborated with Happy Cities to create the Guidelines, which offer a set of design strategies and actions that municipalities, developers, and community organizations can use to create dementia-inclusive communities. Informed by preliminary findings, interviews with municipal planners, and a mixed-stakeholder community forum, this document is the first of its kind to offer a guide on dementia-inclusive neighbourhood design in British Columbia and Canada. ​

A dementia-inclusive community is one where people living with dementia feel fully included in society, both socially and in the design of the physical environment. To support people living with dementia to continue participating in the community, education and awareness are key—but so is urban design. If the neighbourhood does not meet the needs of people living with dementia, they may spend less time outside the home, which can lead to worsened cognitive, mental, and physical health, and social isolation. Dementia-inclusive design makes it safer and more comfortable for people living with dementia to spend time in public spaces and benefits people of all ages and abilities.

Examples of dementia-inclusive neighbourhood design

Dementia-inclusive neighbourhood design includes high-level planning decisions—around land use, transit, and more—as well as environmental aspects such as public art and the detailed design of street paving, public toilets, and lighting.  To create an urban environment that supports the health and inclusion of people living with dementia, the design strategies in the Guidelines are informed by six key wellbeing principles: Neighbourhood spaces should be comfortable, accessible, familiar, safe, distinct, and legible. Navigate through the gallery below to see more examples from the Guidelines. 

“The neighbourhood built environment has a critical role in supporting or constraining the everyday functional and social life of people living with dementia,” notes Dr. Habib Chaudhury, gerontology professor at SFU and principal investigator on the DemSCAPE project. “Municipalities, developers, and businesses can make informed decisions to create responsive environments based on these Guidelines for a dementia-inclusive community.”

Implementing dementia-inclusive planning and design

As a next step, the Metro Vancouver DemSCAPE team has been awarded two Mitacs Accelerate Fellowships to continue working with partner municipalities of Burnaby and Richmond in British Columbia to adopt the Guidelines in their planning processes and identify targeted intervention projects. To help municipalities achieve their vision of dementia-friendly streets and outdoor spaces, this knowledge mobilization extension of project activities aims to create education and training tools and resources for municipal planners, as well as members of community-based organizations. The activities planned for this phase of the project include: 1) conducting screenings and group discussions for a short video and photo exhibit on the importance of streets and outdoor spaces for people living with dementia, 2) group discussions with municipal planners to develop guidelines that will help them apply knowledge of dementia-friendly streets and outdoor spaces to planning and design, and 3) surveying targeted streets in Metro Vancouver engaging people living with dementia and helping municipal planners find solutions to make those streets more dementia-inclusive.

Video: Understanding the impact of neighbourhood design on people living with dementia

Dementia-inclusive Planning and Design Gallery

To read the full Guidelines and appendices and learn more, CLICK HERE.

Here are some examples of what these principles look like in practice:

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