Connecting European Neuroscience

When Landscape Architecture meets Neuroscience

A challenging interdisciplinary project in Scotland is looking to see where neuroscientists and architects can collaborate to address one of Europe’s grand challenges – keeping the increasing number of aging people fit and active. ‘Mobility, Mood and Place’ emerged in 2013 from a partnership between Edinburgh Neuroscience - an umbrella organisation representing all branches of neuroscience and psychology at the University of Edinburgh - and the Edinburgh College of Art (ECA). Jane Haley, scientific coordinator of Edinburgh Neuroscience speaks with project director Catharine Ward Thompson, Professor of Landscape Architecture at the ECA.

ECA Degree Show Photos. Credits.  

What is Mobility, Mood and Place? 

Mobility, Mood and Place is a multidisciplinary research project which explores what aspects of the environment support activity in old age. It is funded by three UK research councils - the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) and AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council). The reason we have ‘Mood’ in the title is because we are interested not just in barriers to mobility, but also in what kind of environments support positive feelings and emotions. What are the sorts of places where people choose willingly to go out and be active and that enhance the quality of life? There has been quite a lot of research on barriers to mobility for people who are older or disabled, but less emphasis on environments that lift the heart or entice people to go outside and engage actively in the wider environment.


Who is involved and how did you come together?

In 2012, a cross-funders call for “Design for Wellbeing: ageing and mobility in the built environment” was announced. Edinburgh Neuroscience recognised that we had a group of researchers who may be able to put together a proposal and invited a group of academics from different disciplines to consider an application that would be innovative, particularly in the diversity of disciplines involved. So far as we are aware, the project provides a unique combination of expertise from different disciplines including myself, as lead PI, as a landscape architect. This was an exciting opportunity for us to come together and talk about the approaching challenges of designing environments that support mobility in old age, coming from the viewpoint of people who work professionally in designing the built environment (architects and landscape architects), those interested in cognitive ageing (geriatricians, psychologists, neurologists), academics who are experts on happiness, and people interested in epidemiological studies of relationships between the environment, health and the ageing process (social anthropologists, epidemiologists and social geographers).


What does the project involve?

We have three main strands: the first involves Masters students of architecture and landscape architecture working with researchers, and with older people as co-designers. They are exploring together the individual preferences for places where people live that are either attractive and easy to use, or difficult and barriers to mobility. We have explored urban regeneration areas in London and Manchester as part of this project and had lively engagement from older people in these areas.

The second strand involves using mobile EEG headsets to explore - in real time - how older participants respond to different urban environments from busy commercial streets to green parks and open spaces. We want to understand, with good temporal resolution, how different their responses to varying environments may be, even at a subconscious level; which environments require more concentration to navigate and which result in a more relaxed response.

The third strand looks at people’s environmental histories. We are working with the 1936 Lothian Birth Cohort (a group of people who have been extensively cognitively tested in childhood and are now being tested again in old age), many of whom have spent a substantial part of their lives living in the Edinburgh and Lothian’s area.  They have been asked to identify where they have lived since age 11 and social geographers are being very inventive in finding historical records on housing quality, environmental pollution, access to green space, etc., in these areas and mapping environmental changes in 10 year periods since 1936. 


What could environmental history contribute to the project?

We want to find out if there are environmental predictors over the life course that predict how active people are in old age. We also want to determine whether there are crucial life stages where the environment seems to play a stronger role in predicting mobility in old age. The mobility levels and environmental data are also being correlated with the extensive cognitive function data collected with the LBC1936. Previous research with this group has already suggested that staying active in old age is a good predictor of healthy cognitive ageing, so this work will further extend that research by determining what predicts whether people are more physically active in old age.


What point is the project at now?

We are about half way through the project and still collecting data. The challenge now is to integrate all the different strands of data and interpret the findings in a way that is more than the sum of the parts.