The Future for Seniors? It’s all about Walkable Communities


The New York Times reports on a new phenomenon-the seniors are leading the way in retirement by showing us how we SHOULD be living-in walkable communities.

While people look for a comfortable house that works for families when they are younger,  “aging in place” is not necessarily the right term for older folks-“aging in community” appears more apt. This is especially important as the baby boom goes into their senior years, and will need access to shops and services, and may not necessarily be able to use a car.

In the age of the Fitbit and a growing cohort of active, engaged retirees eager to take their daily 10,000 steps, retirement communities have been slow to change. Eighty percent of retirees still live in car-dependent suburbs and rural areas, according to a Brookings Institution study.

Retirement communities are normally in two types: isolated gated communities, or large homes on golf courses, such as Tsawwassen Springs. The challenge is both of these types of developments are car dependent, and not great for walking, with curvilinear streets and dead ends. There is a new shift-getting out and walking to shops and services. Among senior housing projects, examples include Waterstone at Wellesley along the Charles River in the Boston area and The Lofts at McKinley in downtown Phoenix. 


Walkability, though, is much more than a hip marketing pitch. It’s linked to better health, social engagement and higher property values. Research shows that walkable mixed-use communities can reduce disabilities for the aging, enhance social contacts and creates community. The challenge is building senior friendly mixed use developments within existing cities, as mainstream retirement developers had traditionally favored suburban or exurban sites that involve sprawling “greenfield” building on relatively cheap farmland. The new approach, by contrast, is for dense, urban or town-centered sites that are accessible for services and socially vibrant.

Changes that will be needed to accommodate seniors are rezoning mixed use developments and infrastructure changes such as wider sidewalks, bike lanes, more public transportation options and longer pedestrian signal walk times. That way instead of moving to remote locations away from family and familiar services, Grandma and Grandpa can stay where they have always been and be part of the whole community.

Walking “Sheds” and Why They Matter



From the brilliant minds of  Public Square, Robert Steuteville writes about the return to compact walking friendly neighbourhoods, with shops and services in close walking distance. When the City of Vancouver developed Greenways, we said that these streets which favour walking and biking ahead of vehicular traffic should be a twenty-minute walk or a ten minute bicycle ride from every residence in Vancouver.  New urbanism architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and city planner and author Jeff Speck take this concept one step (no pun intended) further. They are using the  terminology of  “pedestrian shed,” a distance that can be covered in five minutes at a normal walking pace—typically shown on a plan as a circle with a quarter-mile radius.

Work undertaken by  Victoria Walks in Australia  shows that seniors and young people will go about the same distance by foot to access services-one kilometer. At a speed of 6 km/h that normally takes a person about ten minutes. The five-minute radius suggested  by Plater-Zyberk and Speck is about 400 meters.

“If the built environment is appealing and human scale, the theory is that most people will walk at least five minutes rather than get in a car. The idea is embedded in a thousand new urban plans and incorporated into zoning codes now. Although the quality of the built environment can expand or shrink the distance people will walk, the quarter-mile pedestrian shed remains an influential and useful idea for designing neighborhoods and building complete communities. “

Speck sees the walking shed as a primary way to organize develop that emphasizes walkability and connection, and reinforce the concept of walkability in neighbourhoods. The article goes through the theoretical discussion of early planning form which incorporated walkability before being usurped by  the car and by suburban developers.  There is also discussion of  how retailing and mixed use is returning to walkable locations reminiscent of the  accessible corner store from the last century.


Walk More, Reduce Hospitalization by 30%, Save Two Billion Dollars


The excellent work that Dr. Larry Frank is undertaking at the University of British Columbia has been reinforcing the importance of walkable cities and places to keep citizens mentally sound, emotionally happy, and physically fit. The  Australian journal “The Conversation” has now joined into the conversation and asks a simple question-what would happen if EVERYONE built 8,800 steps a day into their routine? Would this be a game changer for the health of citizens and for the budgets of nations that fund universal health care?

Considering only the people aged over 55, at a minimum it would reduce the need for hospitalisation by 975,000 bed days per year, for a saving of $1.7 billion dollars. Given there are health benefits at other ages, and the less healthy Australians not represented in our study could benefit more, the actual benefit is likely to be even greater.”

The study classified people over 55 as inactive if they took 4,500 steps a day or less. An active senior took 8,600 steps a day. Just the simple act of doubling the steps, or increasing walking time to roughly 40 minutes a day reduced hospital days by a third.

“With governments searching for ways to reduce spending, and 16% of the federal budget being spent on health, tackling physical inactivity of individual patients, as well as ensuring our urban centres are walking- and cycling-friendly would make a major difference.”

Given these findings, does it  make sense for Provincial governments to provide funding to municipalities to make communities more walkable for  seniors, and provide safe comfortable linkages  to  shops and facilities? How can we further link the health benefits of walkable livable places to the well-being and longevity of residents?