Kathy Sykes

Kathy Sykes, Senior Advisor of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Aging Initiative, spoke with us recently about the connections between the environment, our aging population, and the importance of creating walkable communities. She shared with us what she thinks those interested in the environment and aging in place will gain from attending Pro Walk/Pro Bike®: Pro Place 2012 and emphasized that while there has been much success in making rural and urban communities more accessible to persons of all abilities and older adults, “there’s definitely room” for more progress.

The EPA’s Building Healthy Communities for Active Aging Awards program has already recognized 22 communities for Active Aging. Achievement Award Winners include Charlotte, North Carolina and the Brazos Valley Council of Governments in Texas, and Commitment Award Winners include the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging in Pennsylvania and the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood & Community Services in Virginia. Efforts made by these communities to meet the demand for more accessible, enjoyable places to age in place in a time of rising household sizes, declining homeownership, tighter lending standards, and a sell-off of single-family houses by the nation’s fastest growing demographic—senior citizens—according to Robert Steuteville of the New Urban Network.

As the housing dynamic shifts from homeownership to an increase in rentals Arthur C. Nelson, professor of city and regional planning at the University of Utah estimates that there are 39 million rental units in the US, and that number is expected to rise by between 9 and 12 million by 2020. He foresees a “flood of new rental units in many forms, from new apartment buildings; condo buildings converted to rental; accessory units attached to single-family houses; and existing owner-occupied houses that are flipped to rental.” But, he says, “The most popular locations will be mixed-use, transit-friendly neighborhoods”

 

What do you think is most important in terms of making communities more walkable and accessible for the aging population?

The main concerns have to do with Complete Streets, traffic calming, and connectivity. Issues the aging population faces often have to do with sensory loss. Making sure that there is adequate time to cross intersections, good lighting for visibility and safety at night, and having connected sidewalks for those who use canes or wheelchairs are some of the key things that communities can provide. In rural communities, having a town center is extremely important: a place where many different tasks can be accomplished in one area, like shopping for groceries, visiting the pharmacy, socializing with friends, and accessing day care facilities for those who care for grandchildren.

What do you think that people who are interested in aging in place and environmental issues can gain from Pro Walk/Pro Bike®: Pro Place 2012?

I think we’re still learning about how the built environment affects the health and well being of people throughout the life course. I believe that creating and maintaining great places in communities benefits persons of all ages. Placemaking, what PPS is all about, is a vital approach that can meet the needs of our rapidly growing older population and create vibrant places to live and thrive. For elders who are retiring, the “third place” becomes much more important than working. More and more, elders are continuing to work, both from the home and out in their communities, and I think it’s important to understand that’s remaining a critical part of peoples’ lives for longer than we had previously anticipated.

In cities, do you see agencies that deal with elder and senior issues, and that have traditionally focused on providing services, changing? Are they also starting to think about the built environment and access issues for the populations they aim to serve?

I find it very interesting that over the years, the topic of the built environment at aging conferences used to be almost nonexistent, and now it’s more common at every annual meeting; that’s a growing success. The leaders are sometimes from local government, the American Planning Association, American Seniors Housing Association, or an area agency on aging. I think leadership can come from many different places, and a good leader is one that can bring different partners together. Leadership requires recognition of where the resources come from, whether it’s through transportation funding or housing, and then having that little connectivity of Privately Owned Vehicle Transportation as well as housing. That is the importance of having housing for people of all incomes, and creating more options for different types of transport if they don’t exist already, especially for those who may not have a vehicle.

There’s definitely room for continued improvement. One third of all area agencies on aging are located in councils of government, so their partners, neighbors, and colleagues are people from a planning department. The AAA is often asked to do plans, looking at the needs and strengths of the aging population. I think volunteering or getting involved in land use decisions and attending local planning meetings is an untapped resource and elders definitely could be part of the corps of people to help push for those changes. Much more can be done, and in some communities it’s already happening, but many more people need to be cognizant of how their community is ill-equipped to serve people of all ages.

Says Sykes: especially for seniors, installing more benches in public spaces is important: "Sometimes you just need a break." / Photo: kayka_m via Flickr

I think most 21st century public health issues are going to be closely related to climate change, so I think that designing places in thoughtful, environmentally-cosncious ways (using pervious vs. impervious surfaces, reducing heat island effect, appropriate landscaping) can add to the beauty and economic value of a community and make it a pleasurable place to go out for a walk or a bike ride, and make more people want to take part in those activities. People who have that love for their communities can definitely be great champions of a better built environment.

Another obvious thing that benefits people of all ages would be to have places where bikes can be parked, or installing more benches where people can sit and wait, because sometimes you just need a break. Another interesting issue I noticed in Sweden is they’re talking about having tax breaks for bike maintenance. Here, we have a lot of focus on the maintenance of homes as a problem that grows as people age in place, but if they’ve been dependent on bicycling, that’s an interesting thought on the maintenance of a bike as well.

In line with the “third place” idea, and for people who are no longer in the work force, there’s been research done about people after retirement who use getting out and about for leisure as opposed to walking to and from work. Those pathways may take people more to parks or to friendly neighborhoods, so thinking about those needs could actually bring out people of all ages. The same ideas go with the greening of streets and making them sustainable, and how we build our infrastructure. An eye toward the environment is also an eye toward the health and well being of folks.

 

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This article was cross-posted from the PPS Placemaking Blog. Click here to visit the original post.

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