Framework for Age- and Child-Friendly Communities: Building Inclusive & Accessible Environments
Children, youth, and seniors are an integral part of every community. They also have unique leisure, accessibility, and health needs that local governments need to consider. As their name implies, age-friendly and child-friendly communities are places that provide the outdoor spaces, buildings, services, resources, and infrastructure required for seniors, children, and youth to thrive. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an age-friendly city “encourages active ageing by optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age.” Similarly, UNICEF defines a child friendly city as “a city or any local system of governance that is committed to fulfilling children’s rights,” including safety and health, civic development, play and social activities, and equal opportunity rights.
While some public places, activities and programs may be planned for and appeal to either seniors or children and youth, there are benefits for the entire community when designers and planners take up the challenge of building inclusive & accessible environments - livable communities - for all ages and abilities.
Age Friendly World, World Health Organization (WHO)
Population ageing is one of the biggest social transformations of the 21st century. Adapting our towns and cities to meet the needs of a growing-older population will be necessary to meet the challenges of rapidly changing population demographics, worldwide. According to WHO data, between 2000 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years old will double, from about 11% to 22%, or about 2 billion people in total. Of these, 395 million will be over the age of 80. This means, by 2050, for the first time in history, adults over the age of 65 will outnumber children under the age of 15. Most of today’s adults and children will be ageing in cities.
Making cities more age-friendly is a worthwhile investment in more ways than one. Supportive and enabling environments enable older people to stay independent longer, and in turn, cities and communities benefit from the many contributions they have to offer. An age-friendly city fosters solidarity among generation as well as between cultural groups, facilitating relationships and bonds between residents of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. Age-friendly cities reach out to older people at risk of social isolation through personalized, tailored efforts designed to minimize economic, linguistic or cultural barriers, allowing older people to feel socially included and involved.
Of course, an age-friendly city is really a livable city for all ages. Age-friendly cities design and adapt their natural and built environments for residents of all ages and abilities by providing accessible and safe road and transportation networks, barrier-free access to buildings and houses, and improved park and recreational facilities, among others. Age-friendly cities can prevent and delay age-related illnesses through the provision of community support and health care services, enabling older people to maintain their health and independence for as long as possible. These support services benefit younger generations too.
Launched in 2006 with about 36 member cities, today, nearly 300 municipalities around the world are participating in the WHO Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. The partner for this effort in the United States is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Network of Age-Friendly Cities, which now has more than three dozen members. Let’s look at 4 inspiring ideas from America’s cities, as gathered by Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President, Community, State and National Affairs and highlighted in AARP’s new, free ebook, ‘Where We Live: Communities for All Ages’.
Vision Zero, San Francisco, California
From public transit to bike lanes and walking paths that promote outdoor exercise, livable communities promote a variety of transportation options to connect people to jobs, schools, commerce, healthcare and social activities. Without these options, many residents, particularly seniors, are cut off from opportunities to work, socialize and maintain a daily routine. However, according to data published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, pedestrian fatality rates start increasing significantly at age 45, and by age 75, a person is more than twice as likely as a 16-20-year-old to die by being hit by a car.
This is why cities around the US are transforming transportation systems with a focus on expanding public transit options and making walking and biking easier and safer for not only senior citizens, but people of all ages. According to data compiled by WalkSF, San Francisco is one of the most walkable cities in the country, earning a WalkScore of 84—the second highest in the country after New York City. Nearly 10 percent of residents commute to work by walking, the fourth highest percentage in the country after Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Nevertheless, every year in San Francisco, about 30 people lose their lives and over 200 more are seriously injured while traveling on city streets. In 2014, 29 people were killed including 17 while walking, three while bicycling, and nine while riding in cars or on motorcycles.
Vision Zero SF is the City’s new road safety policy that aims to build safety and livability into city streets, protecting the one million people who move about San Francisco every day. The goal is to build better and safer streets, educate the public on traffic safety, enforce traffic laws and adopt policy changes in order to create a culture that prioritizes traffic safety. The hope is that the result of this collaborative, city wide effort will be safer, more livable streets - and zero pedestrian deaths by - 2024.
Engineering projects in support of Vision Zero SF incorporate safety improvements like protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks and reduced traffic speeds. The goal is to calm traffic, enhance visibility and improve the organization of city streets. In addition, a series of bus, billboard and radio ads were launched in order to communicate that even in unmarked crosswalks, pedestrians crossing at intersections have right-of-way. In the bus ads, for example, cars and pedestrians are separated by the campaign’s titular phrase, “It Stops Here” where a painted crosswalk line should go. The tagline reads: “All intersections are crosswalks.”
Vision Zero began in Sweden in 1997 and pedestrian deaths have been cut in half in the country since it started. Based on this success, San Francisco is just one of a number of cities in the US to have adopted a Vision Zero policy. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Boston, Washington DC, San Antonio, San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Mateo, CA, Fremont, CA, Austin, TX, Columbia, MO, Tampa, FL, and Bellevue, WA are currently undertaking major street safety initiatives inspired by the original Vision Zero effort. To learn more about the international Vision Zero initiative please visit www.visionzeroinitiative.com.
Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Cheyenne, Wyoming
According to AARP, livable communities are committed to maintaining a healthy environment for people today, and generations to come. Expanding and preserving parks and open spaces creates opportunities for fresh air and physical activity, while at the same time protecting wildlife habitats from destruction. Energy-efficiency and “net zero” initiatives can minimize pollution from fossil fuels while lowering energy bills and making a dent in public spending. And a focus on green jobs can put people to work while spurring environmentally conscious innovations.
Located in the capital city of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens combine gardening, volunteerism, education, and stewardship to create a space that goes beyond beauty. The Gardens, which opened in 2009, bring delight to visitors of all ages and all degrees of physical and emotional ability. A visionary group of donors, designers, and staff created a place rich with life and full of fun and inspiration. The Garden’s Paul Smith Children’s Village, pictured above, which grew out of a former park maintenance facility, was the first LEED certified children’s garden in the nation. The success of the Children’s Village is measured by its consistently packed schedule, booked nearly every day of the year. Kids learn about plants, water, art, physics, and the world around them by directly experiencing them. The Children’s Village boasts three types of renewable energy, adaptive reuse of a historic building, and engaging visual displays of the building’s utility performance.
Spanning three-quarters of an acre of interactive landscapes, the Children’s Village creates a kid-friendly space themed on “Sustainability: Past, Present, and Future” that fosters curiosity and learning for young minds. Children have the opportunity to explore numerous specialty, interactive landscapes including a natural wetlands, gravity powered water works, farmers windmill, solar pumps, hand powered pumps, Archimedes’ screw (an ancient method for hand pumping water), Indian tipis, a green roofed dog house, world vegetable garden, picnic orchard and more. The center of the site features a color-codedgeodesic dome.
While the main exhibits of the Children’s Village are designed with kids in mind, the design team succeeded in creating a space that is appealing to both those young in age and those young at heart. Adults can also enjoy the Village, taking in its beautiful surroundings for a picnic or spending the day watching their children or grandchildren learn about the world they live in.
Thanks to a partnership with the city of Cheyenne and the Friends of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens non-profit, public and educational programs are low-cost. Volunteers at the Gardens bring together nature-lovers of all ages, from 12 to 89, and provide over 90% of the physical labour at the Gardens. The award-winning Cheyenne Botanic Gardens volunteer program is horticultural therapy in action. The volunteer workforce is primarily composed of seniors, youth at risk, youth working on special programs (merit badges or awards programs) and people with disabilities. The site welcomes 50,000 visitors a year, bringing in almost as many guests as there are permanent residents in Cheyenne!
Mural Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
According to AARP, public art installations, arts education in schools, exposure to music, dance, theatre and the visual arts fosters creativity and enhances recreational opportunities for citizens of all ages, while giving communities a sense of place. The City of Philadelphia knows this all too well. The city’s Mural Arts Program is the nation’s largest public art program, dedicated to the belief that art ignites change.
For 30 years, Mural Arts has united artists and communities through a collaborative process, rooted in the traditions of mural-making, to create art that transforms public spaces and individual lives. Mural Arts engages communities in 50–100 public art projects each year, and maintains its growing collection through a restoration initiative. Core Mural Arts programs such as Art Education, Restorative Justice, and Porch Light yield unique, project-based learning opportunities for thousands of youth and adults.
Each year, 12,000 residents and visitors tour Mural Arts’ outdoor art gallery, which has become part of the city’s civic landscape and a source of pride and inspiration, earning Philadelphia international recognition as the “City of Murals.”
Begun in 1984 as the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network by then Mayor, W. Wilson Goode, the program started as an innovative way to curb a rampant graffiti problem in the city. Jane Golden, a young artist hired by Goode, built relationships with graffiti artists and channeled their creativity toward planning public art projects instead of defacing public and private property. Since then, Golden has collaborated with everyone from school kids, cops, prisoners and senior citizens to plan and paint murals. The first murals Golden painted with graffiti artists showed people that art in the city streets could be just as significant as art in galleries and museums — and it could be accessible to everyone. Today, the program is currently one of Philadelphia's largest employers of artists, employing over 300 artists a year. The Mural Arts Program also hires prosecuted graffiti vandals at a rate of over 100 per year and involves them with the creation of murals around Philadelphia.
Pictured above, one of two murals painted on a pair of apartment buildings in Mantua, a West Philadelphia neighborhood known as “The Bottom”. Featuring a local Mantua resident, the murals are so beloved in the area, local residents have planted a garden in front to draw extra attention to them, and the vacant field trashed with glass shards and old tires adjacent to the buildings has been replaced by a park.
Genesis Intergenerational Community, Washington, DC
Livable communities provide a range of housing options so people of all ages, incomes and abilities can live in a quality neighborhood and stay in their homes as long as they can. According to a report by the AARP Public Policy Institute and the National Conference of State Legislatures, close to 90 percent of people over the age of 65 want to “age in place” safely, independently and comfortably. Age-friendly upgrades and safe, affordable housing in walkable places creates vibrant communities, for young and old alike.
Case in point - Genesis is a small, intergenerational community located in Washington, DC, consisting of 27 affordable apartments for seniors, young mothers who have aged out of the foster care system, and the children they are raising. As part of the “intentional neighboring” model of community living, everyone, including the most vulnerable, commits to supporting each other and the community.
Each resident is expected to support their neighbors by committing to a set number of hours of community participation. Community participation could be time spent helping neighbors with a task or errand, participating in community events, or simply being there when a fellow community member needs a helping hand or someone willing to listen. Seniors provide the foundation for Genesis. They're required to commit to 100 hours of community participation every quarter or approximately 7-8 hours a week. Non-senior adults are responsible for 50 hours every quarter. Monthly rent at Genesis is based upon income and apartment size. The opening of Genesis on November 19th, 2015 underscores DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s commitment to combating homelessness among vulnerable populations and transforming the District into an Age-Friendly City where residents of all ages are able to grow up and grow older in diverse, intergenerational, and supportive communities.
Mi Casa, a Washington-based affordable housing developer, partnered with Generations of Hope, a nonprofit that supports the creation of intergenerational housing projects, and several D.C. government agencies, including the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency and the D.C. Office on Aging, to build Genesis from the ground up. Initially conceived as a traditional affordable apartment community, Mi Casa quickly changed design plans when it learned about the Generations of Hope project. While the building was already designed to be accessible for various abilities, one-bedroom units accommodating single seniors were added. The original building design also had little community space outside of the laundry room. Genesis’s revised blueprint incorporated gathering areas for residents to get to know each other and interact. In addition to the library of donated books for all ages, there is a computer center, conference/multi-purpose room, community kitchen, patio and garden area. Each floor has a small niche with a computer and chairs to facilitate interaction. In addition, Genesis is close to public transportation, grocery stores, child care centers, and other resources that meet the needs of all its residents.
Other intergenerational communities similar to Genesis already exist around the country. The first one, Hope Meadows in Illinois, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Genesis is the first community in Washington, DC, to be based on the award winning Generations of Hope Community model pioneered at Hope Meadows.
The specifics vary, but the common features of a livable community usually involve a place that’s safe and accessible, has usable outdoor spaces, provides opportunities for work and play and includes needed services and effective ways to get around, no matter a person's age or life stage. Need more inspiration? AARP offers numerous resources to help communities become great places for all ages at www.AARP.org/livable.