How civic design can promote healthy aging

How civic design  can promote  healthy aging

For many of us, a walk around the corner or a trip to the store is an effortless fact of daily life.

But viewed through the eyes of an older adult with restricted mobility, that same trip can be an intimidating, physically demanding ordeal. Simple details of the urban landscape, such as uneven pavement or crosswalk timing, become harrowing obstacles to those individuals with physical limitations that make walking difficult or induce fear of falling.

The all-too-frequent result is that older adults are deterred from engaging with their communities to the detriment of their physical and social well-being. So what makes a community a good place to grow old?

That’s the overarching question that inspires MSFHR Scholars Joanie Sims-Gould and Heather McKay. For years, the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility researchers have been working at ground level throughout Lower Mainland communities to understand the unique issues facing older adults. Through their work, they have built an evidence base that is helping to change the way engineers, city planners, and policy-makers look at older adults and the way cities are designed.

Taking it to the Streets
How street-level changes impact mobility and social interaction

Taking a walk along the Comox Greenway in Vancouver’s West End is like wandering into an urban oasis.

Benches and chairs dot the sidewalk at half-block intervals offering a scenic respite, often accompanied by the refreshment of a water fountain. Cyclists zip past in both directions, outnumbering cars by a hefty margin along the traffic-calmed thoroughfare. Well-maintained sidewalks and ample shade make for a pleasant stroll up or down the gentle slope.


To help understand the connections between mobility, social connectedness, and neighbourhood environments, researchers at the Centre for Hip Health & Mobility (CHHM) organized community engagement events, including walking tours.

It is, by any reasonable measure, a walker’s paradise and many of its defining features reflect evidence and perspectives shared with planners by McKay and Sims-Gould. The $5.4-million project, completed in June 2013, takes to heart the lessons learned from their extensive and ongoing study of older adults’ mobility needs, providing a model for the development of other neighbourhoods to better support healthy aging.

Through a number of research projects – including Active Streets, Active People (ASAP), funded by MSFHR and the Wall Solutions Initiative – Their consultations with older adults have ranged from on-the-ground neighbourhood audits to face-to-face conversations about the features that support or hinder mobility.

What they found was that basic features that might an able-bodied person might overlook – benches, lighting, smooth sidewalks, safer crosswalks – mattered greatly to older adults and were strongly connected to the ability to age with independence and autonomy.

“If you create an urban environment that has features that facilitate getting out the door, we see much greater incidence of people using active modes of transportation,” says Sims-Gould. “And what does that mean? That means that they’re obviously reaping the physical health benefits but also are more likely to come in contact with their neighbours, make social connections.”

Sims-Gould notes that their research found older adults living near the greenway chose to use active modes of transportation – primarily walking – roughly two-thirds of the time. Region-wide, the opposite is true, with 66% of older adults relying on cars.

Participants provided valuable first-hand feedback on the mobility impact of neighbourhood features such as parks, street crossings, sidewalks, lighting, benches, and proximity to services. Findings from the event were shared with local, national, and international stakeholders to assist communities in planning for an aging population. A summary report is available for download. 

The two were invited by the City of Vancouver to consult on the greenway project, where they shared with planners not just the substance of their findings but also, critically, their methods. “How that design played out was really based on us providing – well, Joanie particularly – providing input and guiding them on, first of all, how do you engage older adults in the consultation process?” says McKay. “How do you interact and speak with older adults? And then understanding based on our research and our knowledge base what the needs are for them.”

While it represents a vital step towards greater awareness of older adults in urban planning, the Comox Greenway remains an exception to the rule. Many neighbourhoods, particularly those in suburban settings, remain tailored to car-based transportation. The challenge facing researchers is how to use evidence to ensure older adults have an ongoing voice at the planning table.

“People know what they need in their neighbourhoods and what works – the key is tapping into this knowledge and ensuring it is heard, shared, and communicated,” says Sims-Gould.