Visiting scholar reconnecting cities and an aging population

Jason Winders // Western News

Stefanie Kuhn, a visiting graduate research scholar working in Western’s Sam Katz Community Health and Aging Research Lab, looks to apply the lessons learned from London’s Cherryhill Village Mall to her work on urban planning for an aging population at Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture.

Don’t blame Stefanie Kuhn for sweating the small stuff.

“I’m artsy and I love detail. I notice all the little details – all of them,” said Kuhn, a visiting graduate research scholar in the Faculty of Health Sciences. “In architecture, you get to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades as it encompasses so many disciplines. You study the history of everything, but you also work with people, so there’s psychology, and you work with landscapes, so there’s geography.

“It’s a good discipline to be in if you’re artsy, but like everything else as well.”

In November, Kuhn embarked on a five-month research stint at Western to examine London’s Cherryhill Village Mall on Oxford Street, as it relates to urban design for an aging population, and perhaps apply those findings to her research at Cambridge University.

Working on her MPhil in Architecture and Urban Design, Kuhn focuses on elderly well-being and the city, exploring how urban planners can design future city cores to become accommodating to and, in turn, more attractive to, an aging population.

Her specific project at Cambridge examines Blackpool, England, a seaside city of 142,000 people. Despite an ongoing renewal effort, the dense metro area struggles with a low-income population and high crime rates. How can a city like that, Kuhn asks in her research, re-attract its aging population?

“I started looking at what characteristics of the environment are stopping elderly people from coming into the city,” she said. “I look at well-being of elderly people, and active acting in regard to well-being. That breaks down into all sorts of categories. I focus on those categories that can stop people – those barriers or enablers, as I call them – from coming into the city.

“Blackpool is quite a good case study for that, really.”

Her work led to a deeper exploration of ‘naturally occurring retirement communities.’

“These are interesting because there is desirability to them, because they are naturally occurring. People want to go to them,” she said. “If we started to look at why they want to move to these places, it would give us some insight into how we could then start to plan some initiatives.”

Exploring that concept led her to a case study on London’s Cherryhill Village Mall by Health Studies professor Marita Kloseck, analyzing what can be learned from the city’s best-known naturally occurring retirement community. The two researchers soon connected on a project to add depth to Kuhn’s studies.

“People love it, obviously. It has attracted so many people,” Kuhn said. “Cherryhill works because it has all of these wonderful primary facilities. And it has adapted to the population’s needs over time. From an architecture point of view, it is interesting. I can see why Cherryhill works.”

At Western, Kuhn works with Kloseck and Health Studies professor Deborah Fitzsimmons in the Sam Katz Community Health and Aging Research Lab. Using Cherryhill as an example, the researchers are creating a series of papers outlining a framework for urban planners confronting retrofits, or new developments, and how to make them attractive and convenience to the aging population.

“Stefanie, with her architecture and urban design interest, brings a novel perspective to the Community Health and Aging Research Unit,” Kloseck said. “She highlights the importance of environmental design in optimizing ‘aging in place,’ a priority for health policy-makers nationally and internationally. Her research showcases the importance of function, and not simply age, in keeping seniors living independently in the community.”