Date of Award

Summer 8-17-2023

Author's School

Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts

Author Department/Program

Graduate School of Architecture

Degree Name

Doctor of Sustainable Urbanism (DrSU)

Degree Type



In recent decades, public space has gained significant attention in both design theory and practice as a critical components of sustainable development for older adults. With growing concerns about social disconnect, economic inequality, and environmental injustice, the revitalization of public space has become a critical piece in creating safe and just cities to foster social connection, health, and resilience for our aging population. I argue in this dissertation that older adults rely on an infrastructure of encounters to navigate social life and that designers and policymakers should critically examine how public spaces distribute and burden labor necessary to create weak social ties. This dissertation adds to a larger discourse of design-oriented research on accommodating and encouraging social interaction in public spaces while contextualizing the broader questions regarding social justice and equity for older adults.

Despite the rich literature and critical theories on public space, existing frameworks such as aging in place, often provide environmental frameworks that overlook issues of equity and justice. This has resulted in overly reductive checklists and design frameworks for accommodating older adults, focusing solely on physical accessibility and compliance with ADA regulation. And although public spaces can bring people together and create more socially connected communities, creating more public spaces without considering how social connections occur only exacerbates the contested nature of public spaces that prioritize the interests of capital over the needs of vulnerable populations.

In this dissertation, a three-phase, mixed-method study is conducted using survey results, geospatial data, and interviews from 42 older adults in three St. Louis case study neighborhoods – Penrose, Central West End, and St. Louis Hills - to explore the role public spaces play in creating and maintaining weak social ties. Unlike strong social ties that typically involve close friends and family members, weak social ties describe the more casual and infrequent social ties that promote social diversity, cohesion and contribute to the overall social fabric in cities. For older adults, these ties are critical for maintaining quality of life as age-related transitions decrease the number of strong ties. Findings indicate that the types of social connections that occur in public spaces are influenced by neighborhood context and the specific needs of individual older adults. While spatial analysis of public spaces is important, this dissertation proposes an “infrastructure of encounters” to examine the physical and nonphysical structures that shape the social ties older adults develop in the built environment.

Infrastructure of Encounters mediate social connection and weak ties through two components. First, it affects the opportunity to encounter people in the neighborhood through four key components: community spaces, retail spaces, institutional spaces, and entertainment spaces. These key spaces are then mediated by four factors – resources, safety, accessibility, and longevity - that impact an individual older adult’s capacity to make social ties. The study reveals that when these key spaces are inaccessible because they are absent or inadequate, older adults face social binds that result in sub-optimal conditions for social engagement within their neighborhoods. These binds force vulnerable older adults to perform additional labor in order the maintain social weak ties. Those without the capacity to perform this additional labor are significantly more burdened with social isolation and a sense of loneliness. Each case study neighborhood’s infrastructure of encounters differs along socioeconomic and racial lines and therefore unjustly distributes labor to our most vulnerable populations.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Linda C. Samuels, Ph.D. Patty Heyda Nancy Morrow-Howell, Ph.D.

Available for download on Tuesday, July 30, 2024