Age-Friendly Outdoor Spaces and Buildings: Worldwide Lessons Brought Home

Published In Blog

July 20th, 2017

The world’s population is aging rapidly. The global population of people aged 60 and over is projected to double from 11% in the year 2006 to 22% by 2050. That will herald the first time in history there will be more older people than children under age 14. Anticipating that shapeshift, forward-thinkers have started studying how locales can be made more “age-friendly” to help seniors live safely, enjoy good health, and stay involved in their communities.

Making a community age-friendly benefits more than just the elderly population living there. When neighborhoods feel secure, residents of all ages and stages are more apt to take part in leisure and social activities that are good for both body and spirit. Families experience less stress when older people have the support and health services they may need. The whole community benefits from the paid and volunteer services older people can offer — and the community economy gets a boost from elders’ patronage.

With those hopeful ends in mind, the World Health Organization undertook the Age-Friendly Communities Initiative, launched in 2006.

A total of 33 cities worldwide participated in initial focus groups — with Portland, Oregon, representing the United States — gathering information from seniors, service providers, and other groups and interested individuals. This research helped identify eight key areas in which communities can become more age-friendly:

  • outdoor spaces and buildings
  • transportation
  • housing
  • social participation
  • respect and social inclusion
  • civic participation and employment
  • communication and information, and
  • community support and health services.

This instructive targeting served as a starting point for many local efforts worldwide, with ongoing efforts recorded at a dedicated website, Age Friendly World.

This article concentrates on the first priority the Age-Friendly Communities Initiative identified: the need for a focused attention on outdoor spaces and buildings.

The Ungreat Outdoors

What may seem obvious is often overlooked: The environment and buildings in a community have a major effect on an older resident’s quality of life — particularly the ability to remain mobile and access services that make it possible to “age in place.”

Often, it’s the natural environment that draws individuals to a particular area: the yearning to live near a body of water, mountains, or wide open spaces. Some covet the quietude and peacefulness of sparsely populated areas, while others crave the bustle and energy associated with larger cities. And moving to a new town or city, disruptive at any age, can take on added challenges for seniors hampered by health and mobility limitations.

Growing numbers of older people are expressing concerns about the age-friendliness of their communities — including the cleanliness, odors, noise levels, and overcrowding that make it challenging to remain there.

One of the age-friendly features mentioned most commonly in the initiative research is the importance of wide open green spaces — with the added caveats that they must be conveniently located, well-maintained, safe, and include protections from inclement weather as well as adequate seating and toilet facilities.

Also important for seniors, especially those more inclined to walk rather than drive: smooth pavements, low curbs, safe pedestrian crossings, walkways free of cyclists and obstructions.

Unpublic Buildings

Seniors also expressed the desire for accessible public buildings, with ramps, adequate signage, non-slip flooring, wide doorways, rest areas, and toilets with handicap access. There was an interesting split about whether elevators and escalators were a help or a hindrance to age-friendliness — with people living in areas where power failures are common expressing fears about being stranded.

Finally, many pointed to the more nebulous need of good customer service for older people in age-friendly communities, with some responding by giving older customers priority service, special service counters, seating arrangements — and, in the case of Portland: an “elder-friendly” business guide and audit system prepared by a group of volunteers. A complaint about the fallout of “progress” that deters age-friendliness: the disappearance of smaller mom-and-pop shops that provided seniors with valuable social interaction.

A Movement Gaining Momentum

There is much value in a global perspective. Communities in Athens, Georgia looking to make age-friendly improvements may take some cues from projects already underway in Athens, Greece. The Age-Friendly World website contains a listing of projects in 400 cities and communities in 37 countries that have made strides in making it easier for seniors to live safer, healthier, more socially inclusive lives.

In truth, America has lagged behind many other countries in recognizing the need to accommodate the needs of older residents. But since its inception in 2006, several U.S. cities have joined the WHO Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities.

New York City has been a leader in establishing projects to improve outdoor spaces and buildings with seniors in mind. One initiative, Age Friendly NYC, has already succeeded in making several tangible improvements, including:

  • Redesigning street intersections at key locations citywide to improve safety for older New Yorkers
  • Providing environmental stewardship workshops and engaging older residents in planting trees as part of two existing programs, PlaNYC and MillionTreesNYC
  • Promoting the use of Universal Design Guidelines to make buildings more accessible through education and awareness efforts, and
  • Establishing a Senior Swim Program in which pools are dedicated to seniors only for swimming and aquatic exercise.

The global Age-Friendly Communities Initiative also helped spawn similar efforts in the United States. Grantmakers in Aging’s Community AGEnda Program is one example. The program allotted one-year grants of $120,000 to help five communities assess and address the needs of their older populations.

The initial grants were awarded to:

  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Miami, Florida, and
  • Phoenix, Arizona.

Of special note in the arena of outdoor spaces and public buildings were walkability assessments and workshops in Atlanta that prompted installation of new crosswalks, ramps, and streetlights as well as improvements to three community gardens. And in Miami, several walkability audits and workshops were held, prompting a project that established a walking incentive program and identified 12 parks as age-friendly pilot sites.

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