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Towards Inclusive Built Environments for Older Adults

Posted By Atiya Mahmood, Ph.D., Monday, October 17, 2016

A central tenet in research on built environment and aging is that access to adequate, accessible and affordable housing and socially supportive neighbourhood environments can enhance the ability of older people with diverse physical or cognitive abilities, as well as contrasting socio-economic backgrounds, to “live and age [in place] successfully with independence and dignity.”

It has been argued that, “people do not just live in houses, they live in and experience neighborhoods.” Access to adequate and affordable public transportation and age-friendly urban design features helps to integrate them into the social fabric of the community. Such design features include, for example, street features (slope, width, material or buffer zones), and municipal elements (including speed humps, signage, public transportation hubs, and bus stops) safety, security and comfort features (well-lit and maintained pavements and streets, benches along walking paths, presence of public washrooms/toilets); and wayfinding (easy signage).

In recent years there have been concerted efforts to enhance home and community environments through policy and practice interventions. Developments in universal design and ‘visitability’ have moved forward our understanding of how to create homes that are functional and liveable for people of all ages and abilities and allow for multiple uses as needs differ or change. A parallel movement, the ‘age-friendly communities’ initiative by World Health Organization is aimed at the broader neighbourhood and community level with a goal of making communities more supportive of older adults who live there. Both initiatives focus on physical environments that are designed to promote independence, mobility and access to resources for older adults also promote inclusion of people of all abilities and ages creating an inclusive environment for all.

To date, there has been little systematic analysis of key questions relating to such policy and practice interventions. For example, little is known whether there is differential emphasis on promoting particular groups of older adults, such as those with mobility impairment over those with tenuous economic status or housing preferences based on their ethnic backgrounds, into the social fabric of their community life. Moreover, little is known about the relative importance of built environments in terms of the inclusion or exclusion of urban dwellers living outside of Europe and North America. Given the dual processes of demographic aging and urbanisation that characterise societies around the world, these knowledge gaps will be of increasing relevance in the years ahead.

Inclusion promoted through built environment design and planning has the potential to facilitate older adults of all types of background and abilities to participate and contribute much more fully to their communities. The offer of resources, services, support and opportunities for participation in turn will promote and empower older adults who often are excluded from planning, decision making, and policy development processes in the places in which they live. Viewed against this background, universal design/visitability programmes and initiatives such as the World Health Organization’s Age-friendly Cities scheme appear well-placed to make a valuable contribution to filling key knowledge gaps.

This content was adapted from Mahmood, A. & Norah Keating (In press, anticipated publication date Summer 2012). Inclusive built environment for older adults. In T. Scharf & N. Keating (Eds.), From exclusion to inclusion in old age: A global challenge. UK: The Policy Press.

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