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Thursday, February 16, 2017

What Makes an Age-Friendly City? Let’s Start With Outdoor Spaces & Buildings

As an old person living in Chicago, I’m interested in how cities are—or are not—adapting to the “silver tsunami” that the Boomers especially represent.

Here’s how the World Health Organization (WHO) describes it:

Since 2008 the majority of the world's population live in cities. Urban populations will continue to grow and by 2030 it is estimated that around 3 out of every 5 people will live in an urban area.

At the same time, as cities around the world are growing, their residents are growing older. The proportion of the global population aged 60 will double from 11% in 2006 to 22% by 2050.

Now, as I learned just last November, Chicago was designated an “Age-Friendly” city by WHO in July 2012 (one of only three in the United States.)  And what I understand about this designation is that it’s not so much a fixed point that the city has reached, but a process it is engaged in, a goal it is moving toward.

And to help Chicago and other cities achieve that goal, WHO has developed eight domains “that cities and communities can address to better adapt their structures and services to the needs of older people.”*

They are as follows, and in no particular order:

1. outdoor spaces and buildings;

2. transportation;

3. housing;

4. social participation;

5. respect and social inclusion;

6. civic participation and employment;

7. communication and information;

8. community support and health services.


Now the first—outdoor spaces and buildings—is likely familiar to anyone who is aging in an urban environment, and especially to those of us who walk, bike, and take public transportation to get around town. And have for the past 30 years since selling our cars.

We pedestrians, for instance, are very sensitive to outdoor spaces and buildings because we daily encounter them along our urban rambles. We notice the ratio of green spaces to concrete, of buildings that are designed on a human scale, both aesthetically appealing and with the aged and physically disabled in mind.

Approaching a busy intersection, we wonder how safe it is to cross, even with the light, when drivers are barreling down them at 70 mph (Western Avenue, among many), often on their phones or, worse, texting.

Then there is what I’ve come to fondly refer to as our booby-trapped infrastructure, those cracked and broken sidewalks with small bits of hard metal often poking up along them. Like the one I tripped over coming out of a grocery store on Lawrence Avenue last summer, going down faster than the thought “Oh, oh, this is going to be a hard fall” even managed to surface into consciousness.

And let’s not even talk about getting around Chicago as a pedestrian when it snows and ices over, when the plows push piles of snow up against sidewalks to get it out of the way of drivers, or when businesses and homeowners don’t shovel or de-ice their sidewalks.

If Chicago is to maintain its current status as an age-friendly city, may I suggest that the Mayor and the aldermen and their staffs and all city workers, especially those in streets and sanitation, be made to regularly walk the streets?  Maybe then they’ll realize how much in jeopardy that status could be.


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