What’s being done to make our towns and cities age-friendly?

Mobility scooter on cobbled street

Image courtesy of Flickr user stemack_street using a Creative Commons license

By Brelda Baum

European Mobility Week takes place from 16-22 September and is themed around ‘Our streets, our choice’.  But what is being done to make towns and city centres age-and-disability friendly?

According to a recent DWP press release, high street income could be boosted by the £212 billion ‘purple pound’ if disabled people and their families could be attracted back to the high street. While the ‘purple pound’ refers to the spending potential of those with disabilities, the power of the ‘grey pound’ (the disposable income of older/elderly people) should also not be forgotten. Taking these two groups together, many of the reasons that they don’t use town and city centres are the same – urban environments are often not disability or age-friendly.

This also resonates with the ongoing debate about the viability of the high street articulated by Mary Portas and others regarding plans to help address the problem of economic decline on the high street and to help guide future change and development.

But what’s not to like about the current urban environment on offer in the high street? A recent report from Housing LIN ‘A research and evaluation framework for age-friendly cities’ looked at each of the 7 World Health Organisation (WHO) age-friendly domains and offers advice on how to embed them into city strategies.

Key issues include:

  • the provision of wide and flat tarmac footways;
  • frequent, warm and supportive seating;
  • sufficient well maintained toilets;
  • and housing that reflects the needs of its inhabitants.

While there is no legal requirement for councils to provide public toilets for people with common medical conditions and older people, this issue is critical for their continued independence, quality of life and wellbeing, and the number of public toilets continues to shrink. According to  Help the Aged, in its 2007 report ‘Nowhere to go’, some 80% of survey respondents did not find it easy to find a public toilet, and 78% found that their local public toilets were not open when they needed them, and current UK toilet provision remains sporadic.

According to Dr Kishore Budha from the School of Design, University of Leeds, the concept of ‘successful ageing’ is changing and people who will become elderly over the next 15-20 years will ‘want to be active .. so there’s a need to rethink the design of services and physical structures – they need to be considered for an active ageing’.  And at the April 2014 British Sociological Society conference, Dr Budha spoke of the effects of the urban-built environment upon elderly people’s street mobility and accessibility to city centres, and about the tools for overcoming these barriers.

Uneven pavements lead to worries around risk and safety and deter people with disabilities and elderly people from using the high street, an issue that needs to be addressed by those responsible for the urban public realm. There is lots of advice available about how to do this, for example ‘Tactile paving: design guide 003’ which is part of a toolkit of guidance devised around the design of streets and outdoor spaces with older people in mind.

These problems are not unique to the UK; a 2010 Eurostat survey of peoples’ perceptions – ‘Survey on perception of quality of life in 75 European cities’ – identified issues relating to the lack of availability of good housing and also expressed dissatisfaction with public transport.

In 2013, the Idox Information Service produced an In Focus briefing on ‘Ageing, transport and mobility that looked at the challenges affecting access to transport for the less mobile in Greater Manchester and identified some solutions, including Lincolnshire’s centralised telephone request service for local buses.

Ageing-friendly communities can promote social inclusion across the whole age spectrum. For example in 2013, Portland (Oregon, USA)  prepared an ‘Action Plan for an Age-Friendly Portland’ which covers everything from housing and transportation, to respect, social inclusion and social participation.

A more sustainable approach would be to develop ‘lifetime neighbourhoods’ – places designed to be inclusive regardless of age or disability.  This view was put forward in the study ‘Lifetime neighbourhoods. It identifies the value of a mix of uses, involving residential, retail, employment, in fostering age friendly communities and highlights numerous examples of good practice in action across the UK.

In conclusion, the evidence suggests that an age-and-disability friendly city makes economic as well as social sense. Given the demographic time bomb with which we live, it is also future-proofing cities to ensure that they are friendly and accessible on many different levels, to all ages and groups.


 

Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on accessibility and age-friendly planning. Some suggestions for further reading from our database include:

Town centre and high street reviews (The Retail Planning Knowledge Base briefing paper)

Short-changed: the Trailblazers’ high streets report

Missing out: a research report

Economic implications of housing in an ageing society

Implications of population ageing for economic growth, IN Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Vol 26 No 4 Winter 2010, pp583-612

N.B. abstracts and full text access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.

5 thoughts on “What’s being done to make our towns and cities age-friendly?

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