Solving Cities

With smart growth, cities help seniors stay fit

With smart growth, cities help seniors stay fit

Posting in Cities

Navigating cities in a car can be challenging for older people. Fortunately, two cities are planning specifically with seniors and people of all ability levels in mind.

Getting around cities can be a challenge even for the most able-bodied. But for older people who are vision-impaired or have slowed reflexes, it's not possible -- or even safe -- to drive.

If older people live in car-oriented communities, transportation options are usually limited. Exercise can also be minimal if the streets aren't designed to accommodate pedestrians.

But two U.S. cities are using smart growth principles -- walkable neighborhoods, transportation variety, compact housing -- to provide a community that promotes exercise and is easily accessible to all physical ability levels, including the elderly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized Charlotte, N.C. and the Brazos Valley region of Texas with its annual Building Healthy Communities for Active Aging Award. To be a recipient, communities must have, as the EPA puts it, "developed programs and practices that reflect the best and most comprehensive implementation of smart growth and active aging at the neighborhood, municipal, tribal, county, and regional levels."

Charlotte has been developing with seniors in mind for the past five years. In 2005 the city adopted the terms of the Status of Seniors Initiative, a set of development recommendations more age-friendly. Since then, more than 5,000 new housing units have been constructed, along with 16 miles of greenways, 88 miles of bike facilities and 106 miles of sidewalks.

According to the EPA:

Charlotte has incorporated senior-friendly design into street improvements, including increasing the size of its signage (for increasing numbers of older drivers).

Charlotte has also increased the number of crossing medians, provided longer and audible crossing areas, and continues to provide for pedestrian safety measures in project implementation.

By focusing on the future of integrating transportation and land use, Charlotte will become a more sustainable, mixed-use city with a sense of community where elders can thrive.

Alongside Charlotte, Brazos Valley Council of Governments -- a seven county regional planning association in Texas -- was also recognized.

The region installed street lamps, planter beds, bike racks and park benches to encourage more physical activity by its residents. In College Station, Texas, a wheelchair-accessible trail system was created to make it easier to be active, for people at all levels of fitness.

But the development has its hurdles.

Ariel Schwartz writes at Fast Company:

These developments hinge, of course, on the availability of funds. Smart growth for the elderly is nearly impossible for cities and towns that lack the cash to build miles of bike lanes and trail systems. But for communities that do have the cash, Charlotte and Brazos serve as examples of how to effectively cater to residents of all ages.

A worthwhile investment? For sure, and not only because it's sustainable.

As Streetsblog points out, the number of seniors in America keeps growing:

By 2030, there will be about 72.1 million senior citizens, or about 19 percent of the population – up from 12.9 percent in 2009.

Municipalities clearly need to be able to handle that rapid growth quickly as the Baby Boomer generation seeks new, easy-to-get-around places to call home. Cities that are slow to accommodate will be quickly left behind.

Photo: Charlotte Department of Transportation

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure