Researchers look for ways to improve city infrastructure for seniors

Researchers look for ways to improve city infrastructure for seniors
Bonnie Thiele (left), 84, and Margaret McPhee, 79, cross the street at Pacific Boulevard and Davie in Vancouver on Tuesday. Researchers at the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility are using a grant to help figure out how to improve the city’s built environment for seniors.
Photograph by: Arlen Redekop, Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER -- On Tuesday, a slow-moving senior tried, but failed, to make it across Pacific Boulevard before the pedestrian light changed.

The cars entering the intersection avoided her, so she arrived at her destination — the Roundhouse community centre — without becoming a pedestrian casualty. Ironically, at the very same moment inside the Roundhouse, a symposium was going on, focused on how urban environments should become more user-friendly for aging baby boomers.

City planners, engineers, seniors and health researchers came together to discuss things such as pedestrian crosswalks, which often don’t allow enough time for a safe crossing, given that at many lights the halting hand starts to flash after just seven seconds.

“It takes all hands on deck,” said Heather McKay, director of the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility, referring to the necessity of collaboration when making infrastructure changes to the so-called “built environment.” That’s why the Vancouver Coastal Health centre helped organize the second annual research and community partnership symposium, called “If we build it, will they walk?”

Using a $1.5-million grant from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, McKay and her colleagues are examining factors that help make cities good places to grow older. Their goal is to identify the things that can prolong active and independent living, which will also help improve physical and emotional health, plus reduce dependency on the health care system.

Margaret McPhee, a 79-year old former gerontology instructor, told the audience about how her Point Grey neighbourhood used to be conducive to block parties, but in the past few years, two-thirds of the homes on her street have been sold, often to offshore purchasers who never move in. Neighbours, if there are any, are now unfamiliar and seniors aren’t feeling as secure going for walks. “The block parties are over. If I were 10 years younger, I’d be moving because there’s nobody around.”

By contrast, 84-year old Bonnie Thiele talked about the vibrant community where she lives in Vancouver’s west end. The retired Vancouver police department 911 operator said it’s the perfect neighbourhood for seniors because everything is within walking distance and residents have an abundance of respect for their elder neighbours.

But she bemoaned the fact that there aren’t more benches so elderly individuals can take a seat during a rest stop.

Asked about what helps or hinders her outdoor mobility, McPhee said: “Toilets, toilets, toilets.”

“We have to plan our walking routes according to where the toilets are,” she said, adding, “The best system of washrooms is Starbucks. They don’t even raise an eyebrow when I go into the men’s room if the women’s is occupied.”

Jerry Dobrovolny, director of transportation for the city of Vancouver, said in an interview that although the aging population is considered during infrastructure planning, “there is always room for improvement.”

Some of the initiatives that are important include improved street lighting, adding benches, ensuring pavement is smooth for scooters and walkers, building more curb cuts (graded curbs), and retrofitting pedestrian lights so that cyclists and pedestrians know how many seconds they have to cross.

But demand outstrips resources for everything, including the latter, so the city is giving priority to pedestrian lights at the 10 intersections where cyclists and pedestrians are most often injured. As for public toilets, Dobrovolny said, maintenance costs are so high that the city is pressing TransLink to install toilets at all stations. Businesses are also encouraged to have toilets available for public use whenever possible.

He said anytime a member of the public wants to alert city staff about ways the built environment can be made more senior-friendly, they can call 311 with their suggestions and requests.

Source: Researchers look for ways to improve city infrastructure for seniors