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Seniors and the City

Most experts agree little is being done to make cities more age-friendly, but some cities are taking steps.

Have you ever thought the walk signs at street corners weren’t long enough? Probably not. But if you’re over 65 years old, it may be a different matter. What seems like a reasonable amount of time to cross a street is more like an Olympic sprint for the elderly. It’s one of numerous issues that have grown in importance as our population not only ages but becomes increasingly concentrated in cities.

In 2006, just 11 percent of the global population was over the age of 60, but the number is expected to double by 2050, according to the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, the number of people living in cities continues to rise. In North America, 81 percent of the population lived in urban areas in 2005, and is expected to reach 87 percent by 2030.

Despite the clear trend toward an older, more urban population, most experts agree little is being done to make cities more age-friendly. Some of the necessary changes will be challenging. It won’t be easy or cheap to provide more public transportation or to build more affordable and accessible housing for seniors who are on fixed incomes and are less mobile.

But there are steps cities can take to make a place more attractive to the elderly without costing an arm and a leg. Take crosswalks. By adding more time, cities can turn what seem like fast dashes for some into less stressful pedestrian crossings. If lengthening crosswalk time might trip up traffic patterns, the use of pedestrian islands at major intersections could be another solution to this small but nagging problem.

Other low-cost ideas include adding more disabled parking places; increasing the number of sidewalk cutaways to make it easier for wheelchairs and walkers to navigate city streets; building more benches, including flip-down seats on the sides of buildings; and improving signage by using larger font sizes.

New York City, which forecasts that its 60-and-older population will increase by 47 percent between 2000 and 2030, has taken the lead in tackling the burgeoning age issue. In 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration looked at the problem and came up with a blueprint for making the city more senior-friendly, including a pilot project that would use school buses to ferry the elderly to grocery stores. Another transportation-related solution would provide eligible seniors with vouchers to use taxis and livery cars to move about the city.

Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized four urban areas for their efforts in combining and promoting smart-growth concepts with more active lives for seniors. Mecklenburg County, N.C.; Brazos Valley, Texas; Fairfax County, Va.; and Philadelphia have undertaken initiatives that range from more walking paths in parks, more land for urban gardens and more public toilets, to fewer barriers, greater social inclusion and a cleaner environment. Ultimately, cities that pursue age-friendly programs not only improve the lives of seniors but of the population as a whole. That’s one idea that doesn’t grow old.

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
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