Reflections on the Fall 2017 SLS BUZZ Course: Universal Design for Sustainable Communities

March 5, 2018

As the world’s population ages, it is becoming painfully clear that few communities are adequately designed or prepared to enable older adults to sustain their communities. As aging elders become more limited in their mobility, either through normal age-related changes or declines in existing conditions, their worlds begin to shrink, they don’t have access to healthy diets and they become disconnected from their social networks.  For seniors who struggle with loss of community and increasing isolation, activity, inclusion and social connectedness, neighborhood farmers’ markets provide a unique opportunity to remain connected to each other, promote physical activity and provide access to nutritious foods.

Inspired by the potential of farmers markets to increase the number of sustainable communities in America, Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS) partnered with the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access (CATEA), the School of Economics, and the Georgia Farmers Market Association (GFMA) to hold a three-session, project-based workshop focused on farmers markets as a case study of design for sustainable and inclusive communities. The 43 Buzz Course participants included 29 students representing 4 colleges and 9 programs, 5 older adults, 5 farmers market managers, 1 staff member from GFMA, and 3 community partners. Together, they learned about Universal Design, evaluated the “senior-friendliness” of Atlanta area farmers markets, and designed solution ideas to increase the attractiveness of markets to older adults. All participants who completed the program earned a digital certificate of completion from Georgia Tech Professional Education.

To ensure that the solutions were accessible and usable by older adults,  participants were given a crash course in Universal Design, which is a set of 7 principles that aim to ensure that the design of products, spaces and technologies in the built-environments are usable by everyone without the need for adaptation or specialized accessible designs.  Applying the Principles of Universal Design, students worked in interdisciplinary teams to use physical and digital modalities to create recommendations for inclusive experiences for seniors at 5 Atlanta farmers markets. Design solutions not only engaged all consumers, young and old, but also had to meet the needs of the farmers and market managers by inspiring a range of appropriate social experiences and interactions. 

The students, older adults, and community members were each assigned to one of the five participating farmers markets. These groups went on field visits for their second session, attending their assigned market to speak to market managers, vendors, and visitors, take pictures and make notes of any barriers to accessibility that they found. The groups then drafted a range of design concepts that could solve the barriers they identified.

The workshop’s final session included presentations from each of the groups, which received feedback from subject matter experts like the market managers, CATEA’s director and Professor in Industrial Design, Jon Sanford, SLS Director, Jennifer Hirsch, and Usha Nair-Reichert, Associate Professor in Economics. After their feedback, students revised their concepts into one final design that they presented to Sagdrina Jala, executive director of the GFMA,and the market managers.

Through this workshop, students from many disciplines worked together, across disciplinary boundaries, to learn about the pressing issues of an aging population that does not have adequate infrastructure to sustain them. They came together with older adults from the community to examine markets and challenge their own perceptions of what constituted senior-friendly design. The final designs for each market ranged from standardizing the signage used by vendors to indicating the types of foods they have available to an Uber-like service that paired volunteers and older adults to provide assistance during the shopping experience.  

Based on the individual workshop solutions, Professor Sanford derived four overarching themes across the five markets for his Junior Design studio class.  These included needs for: hangout space, access to the market and the products, market information and assistance with getting to and using the market.  Student projects were presented in December at the Food for Thought Conference hosted by the Georgia Farmers Market Association, where they received substantial positive feedback and encouragement.

While the inaugural workshop and design studio were highly successful, they only served as a first step.  Serve-Learn-Sustain, CATEA and GFMA are committed to continuing this collaboration to ensure a more sustainable future for our communities.

SLS is also continuing to offer more Buzz Courses – short courses for students, staff, faculty, and partners to teach and learn from each other about sustainable communities, and acquire important skills – like universal design – along the way. The next SLS Buzz Course will be offered in March, on Stream Monitoring and Citizen Science, with field activities in nearby Proctor Creek. Learn more here.