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Brownie's Bench (updated version)
A Love Letter to Urban Green Space
Hands down, one of the best parts about living in my home is the little park just a few steps up the street. I consider myself lucky to live so close to such a vibrant, common space – the venue for countless family birthday parties, picnics, dog training sessions, and even the home to a unique homework spot for my daughters, where they used to sit atop a giant rock to enjoy the views. You get the gist: Dogs frolic on the green grass, kids play ball under the tall trees, and neighbors chat around two park benches, one of which our family fondly calls “Brownie’s Bench”. Brownie is the nickname of my 96-year-old neighbor, who frequents this spot. He uses his cane to negotiate the uneven lawn and precarious tree roots before making his way to the bench where he sits, taking in all the sights and sounds of life humming around him.
My friendship with Brownie was born over time through walks around the neighborhood with my dog. Most days, he would stroll around the block, sometimes humming a tune, stopping here and there to observe a wild iris or cascading wisteria. He’d pause to give me a big smile and ask how I was doing, and then he’d—get this—stop in his tracks to listen. At first we exchanged polite greetings, and over time shared more, like Brownie’s experiences living in Japan during World War II, my career path quandaries, and the singing of our favorite campfire songs.
The other day, as I walked past the park with my dog, I was pleased to see Brownie sitting on the bench, after not running into him for a few long weeks of rain. I took a seat next to him and asked how he was doing. In his straightforward, thoughtful way, he replied, “Well, between the weather and my own aging, it’s been hard to get out. Just being here today is a major accomplishment.” He paused to greet a neighbor, looked up at the finally clear, cobalt blue sky, and repeated, “Yes, I would say this day is a major accomplishment.” He went on to ask what’s going on with me; we shared some laughs and after helping him up from the bench (“pull harder!,” he chuckled), we went our separate ways. I watched him cautiously amble along the bumpy dirt path and make it to the sidewalk, but our conversation stuck with me. Today is a major accomplishment.
As a busy, middle-aged woman with two teenage daughters, always rushing from here to there, it’s easy to forget what a difference a stroll to the park can make in someone’s day. As we already know, moving our bodies, staying socially connected, and being in nature have countless health benefits. My chance meeting with Brownie, though, left me with one lesson I particularly want to share.
When we contemplate where to live as we grow older and how to adapt our homes and our lifestyles to increase safety and delight, we should expand our concept of ‘home’ to include not just our backyards and front porches, but the shared, urban green spaces that connect us to one another. Providing a solid anchor in a sea of our ever-changing needs and abilities, these spaces, ideally, are well cared for, inclusive, intergenerational, and accessible to all.
Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. Not everyone has Brownie’s fortitude to overcome the obstacles on his route—the uneven, craggy paths, the low, armless benches. As architect Susi Stadler so aptly puts it, mastering the experiences of aging are akin to “an extreme sport”. With this in mind, it’s critical to recognize, advocate for, and celebrate the accomplishment of venturing out of our houses to embrace a broader vision of home.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE AGE-FRIENDLY DESIGN OF URBAN GREEN SPACES (courtesy of Professor Emerita Clare Cooper Marcus, from the book she co-authored, Therapeutic Landscapes):
Seating height should be higher than usual, 18 to 19 inches, with a maximum seat depth of 20 inches, arm height of 25 to 26 inches, and arms projecting forward from the seat to provide extra support when standing up.
Provide some seating at right angles or opposite each other, a short distance apart since seeing the person they are chatting with helps some older people who are hard of hearing. Provide sunny and shaded benches for different comfort levels.
Provide seating, alternating with a place to lean—a handrail, for example, or a half wall—at relatively frequent intervals along main pathways. A spacing of 15 to 20 feet is necessary for those who are quite frail and may encourage those who are unsure on their feet to take a short walk.
RESEARCH ON THE HEALTH BENEFIT OF URBAN GREEN SPACE:
TYPICAL ACCEPTABLE WALKING DISTANCES:
The typical walking distance urban planners work with is 10 minutes. That’s about ¼ to ½ miles of walking. 10 minutes of walking every day has proven health benefits. (More information on walkability standards).
OPPORTUNITIES FOR ACTION AND RAISING AWARENESS:
Strike up a friendship with an elder at the Park and offer them support around ‘getting out there’.
Advocate at your City for improvements. It’s very expensive to make a park area fully accessible but replacing some old park benches with new benches that follow the design principles outlined above is doable.
Check out Cognability, a website that provides tools to assess how your neighborhood supports brain health in later life.
Listen to the At Home On Air Interview with Cognability founder and University of Michigan scholar, Jessica Finley.
Listen to the At Home On Air Interview with Professor Clare Cooper Marcus about the role of green spaces in her life and her work to make them accessible to all.