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Considerations in building cities for seniors

Joanne Spearing, an 80-year-old resident of Welland, Ont., slowly disembarks from a city bus. Urban planners say more attention needs to be paid to the special demands of an aging population.

Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Is 30 seconds enough time to cross the street? Not if you're over the age of 65.

"Pedestrian crossings are made for Olympic runners," one elderly Canadian responded in a survey conducted by the World Health Organization.

In 2006, the federal government endorsed the WHO's Age-friendly Cities initiative, which encourages communities to identify changes that will make urban life easier and more pleasurable for an aging population.

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The demographic rationale is undeniable. In Hamilton, Ont., it is projected that the percentage of the population over the age of 65 will grow by 105 per cent by 2051, with the number who are older than 85 climbing by 160 per cent. The city as a whole is anticipated to grow by just 34.5 per cent.

"The reality is that we will have a very large group of people that have very particular needs that will be pressing upon municipal planners and municipal politicians, not only for social services but also for physical infrastructure," said John Lewis, an urban planner at the University of Waterloo.

Cities such as Mississauga, Calgary, Saanich, B.C., and Halifax have already begun making changes, ranging from the size of municipal signs to the number of park benches.

Henry O'Keefe, who chairs the Niagara Region's Age-friendly Management Committee, said building a city for seniors is a business plan as well as a social service.

"Many seniors control the wealth of this country," he said. "By attracting them to an area, you're creating an economic advantage."

Disabled parking spots: In Niagara, municipal authorities are considering a community recommendation that would increase the number of handicapped parking spaces.

Cutaways: The region also plans to increase the number of sidewalk cutaways, the sloped areas of pavement that allow wheelchairs and walkers to easily traverse the gradation from street to sidewalk.

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Cross walks: Extending the length of time allotted for pedestrian crossings is a contentious issue, although many elderly citizens complain that the lights change too quickly. Because of the potential impact on traffic, some cities have considered providing refuge islands at major intersections for those unable to cross the entire street during one light.

Benches: Last year, Halifax awarded $65,000 in Age-Friendly Communities grants, several of which paid for the installation of addition seating around the city. In New York City, flip-down seats have been added to the side of many buildings to accommodate elderly pedestrians.

Readable cities: The City of Mississauga plans to update its website with three font size options, all of which will be sans serif, and will avoid using patterned backgrounds. The Niagara Region is considering installing large community maps, similar to "You are here" signs in shopping malls.

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