1.1. Urban Parks as Places for Walking
Urban parks provide ideal places for older city-dwellers to rest and relax, and more importantly to engage in outdoor activities and social contact [1
]. Due to declining physical strength and sensory acuity, older people typically have reduced mobility, and often prefer green spaces that are easily accessible from their homes. Older adults in China, especially those living in high-density cities, have been found to spend substantial amounts of time in urban parks [2
]. Studies conducted in Taipei and Nanchang found that more than half (61% and 54%) of urban park users were older adults
]. In Shanghai, a behavior-mapping study in three small urban parks found that over 80% of park users were retired older adults
during weekdays [5
As a moderately intense exercise, walking is the most common behavior in urban parks, and can be easily integrated into other activities. Walking has been reported to have a greater appeal for older adults than high-intensity exercise [6
]. For older adults, regular walking may strengthen muscles, reduce the risk of falling, alleviate depression, improve sleep patterns, and improve overall quality of life [7
Although evidence shows that urban parks can contribute to physical activity, parks and walkways may be underutilized if they are poorly designed or maintained [9
]. Since park visitors may perceive the landscape differently from park designers, it is important for designers, planners, and park managers to understand the landscape characteristics that influence the walking experience of older users [12
]. By incorporating evidence based on research, specific landscape plans and designs can be created to accommodate older people’s behavioral needs.
1.2. Relevant Studies
Although many studies have found correlations between walkways and physical activity, very few have analyzed the specific design and landscape features associated with walkways. Using a visual discrete choice experiment, Arnberger et al. analyzed the heat-adjusted designs in green spaces for older adults [13
]. Alves et al. examined the environmental attributes relevant to preference for a neighborhood park [14
]. Although these studies suggest that older adults’ walking behaviors were influenced by the overall urban park landscape characteristics, little was learned about older adults’ preference for specific landscape features along the walkways, particularly in terms of preferred plantings and views.
In China, only a limited number of studies have examined the landscape features of urban park walkways from the perspective of older adults. Using space syntax analysis, Zhai and Baran analyzed walkway configurations and older persons’ walking behaviors in urban parks [15
]. The same authors also related design characteristics of walkways to the numbers of older persons observed on-site [16
]. Duan et al. investigated older people’s park use in Hong Kong, China and Leipzig, Germany [17
]. This study found that urban park walkways were the most heavily-used physical activity areas by older adults in both cities; however, the study focused more on the use of recreational facilities, rather than preferences in landscape perception. Due to intense urbanization and a rapidly-aging population in China, it is becoming increasingly important to plan and design urban parks based on the landscape preferences of older adults in Chinese cities.
1.3. Environmental Characteristics and Features
Studies with older adults have found that specific landscape characteristics can enhance walking activities in residential neighborhoods [18
], local street environments [19
], and urban parks [20
]. Certain landscape attributes of urban parks have been analyzed using choice-based conjoint analysis, indicating that older adults prefer amenities such as toilets, shade structures, well-paved surfaces, trees and plants, minimal traffic, and seating along walkways [14
]. Although studies have gleaned information about which landscape features are important to older users, they did not examine specifically how these features should be designed and arranged [22
]. For example, a study found that generally “trees/plants” were highly preferred by older adults but did not address the types and preferred arrangements of these plants, when viewed from walkways [23
]. Similarly, although park seating was found to be strongly preferred by older adults, few studies have differentiated among different types of seating, such as emphasizing benches with backrests and/or armrests to support frail older users [24
This study fills an existing gap in the literature by empirically investigating several common landscape features of urban park walkways in China, to better understand older adults’ preferences that may potentially impact their walking and outdoor usage. Although large- and small-scale features such as nighttime lighting, walkway layout, and paving conditions have been found to influence park usage, the present study was focused primarily on meso-scale features such as landscape plantings and hardscape elements such as benches, which were considered to be more feasible to test with photographic comparison.
To be eligible for inclusion in this study, landscape features were required to meet the following criteria:
To be visible from the park walkways;
To be tangible, physical features that could feasibly be addressed in the design or renovation of urban parks in China;
To have emerged in the existing literature as important to older adults;
To include both magnets (attractive features expected to encourage usage) and barriers (elements expected to discourage usage).
Among the walkway features that met the above criteria, the following emerged as important, based on the literature and their suitability for photo comparison:
Ground cover plants: covered with grass or other plants, instead of bare land.
Colorful flowers: having decorative flowers or blooming trees along the walkway.
Diverse mix of plants: having different heights and types of plants to increase spatial hierarchy and visual/olfactory stimuli.
Visual accessibility: providing non-obstructed views along the walkway, without plants blocking the view.
Canopy trees: having taller trees that provide shade and a sense of enclosure for walkers.
Available seating: usable seating is located beside the walkway.
Bench with backs and arms: seating provides backrests and/or armrests for support.
These features are prominent in published design recommendations for older adults, and in empirical studies:
Ground cover plants
, which are short enough to walk across, were the most common components of green spaces in many cities worldwide [25
]. Ground cover plants have been linked to participation in sports and increased social interaction [26
]; ground cover plants were preferred by older adults in a previous photo comparison study [28
] and in semi-structured interviews [14
are widely reported as being very important to older adults in design-based literature and preference-based studies. They were strongly preferred by assisted living residents in the United States [29
], elderly visitors of public parks in China [20
], and residents of nursing homes in Sweden [30
]. Colorful flowers were noted to increase older adults’ sensory enjoyment of nature [31
A diverse mix of plants
can provide abundant greenery, and plant materials at different heights can support horticultural therapy and allow older adults closer contact with nature [30
]. Research has found that older adults preferred densely and diversely vegetated green space [36
]. Studies have shown improved physiological and psychological measures associated with time spent in outdoor green spaces with a diverse mix of plants [28
can be psychologically satisfying by providing a distant vista [39
]; studies in the general population found that views of natural settings had remarkable effects on reducing stress [40
]. For older people, access to views has been associated with stronger preference and higher levels of outdoor usage [41
are tall enough to see under, and typically provide overhead enclosure and shade. The ‘prospect-refuge theory’ and the ‘savanna hypothesis’ both suggest that humans are attracted to canopy trees because they are optimal for survival [39
]; later studies have confirmed this preference [44
]. For older adults, shade trees can improve outdoor comfort, reduce glare, and serve as landmarks in outdoor areas [45
Having available seating
can provide places for older adults to rest, watch people, and enjoy nature [34
]. Design guidelines have noted that benches along the walkway can encourage exercise by residents in nursing homes [49
], in low-cost housing for the elderly [42
], and in the city streets [50
]. Seating places were preferred by long-term care residents, especially those with physical limitations [36
Benches with backs and arms
have been identified as important amenities in an effective healing garden [51
]; they provide support while people sit down and rise up, enhancing safety and accessibility for frail older park users [52
]. Precautionary designs to help older people feel comfortable outdoors are emphasized by previous research [41
]; replacing existing benches with those with backs and arms is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to improve ease of usage for older adults.