It is important to be aware of the specific spatial needs of older people from the outset of planning in order to create more walkable communities and age friendly spaces.
Walkability in the context of Age Friendly design refers to the ease at which older people can move around an area, building or space. Regardless of age, the walkability of an area affects all persons, however older people tend to be more aware of and may be challenged by the barriers to walkability.
Recent studies conducted by Age Friendly Ireland that can be found on the Universal Design website have highlighted a number of common issues that reduce the walkability of an area and have a negative impact on the lives of older people. The studies highlighted the subtle differences between an ‘accessible’ area and a ‘walkable’ area for older people. For example, since the early 2000’s many local authorities have undertaken valuable work making areas and buildings more accessible in line with the Part M building regulations. However the Age Friendly Towns Programmes showed that while areas may be technically accessible, design elements such as proximity of bins to seats (at least 10 metres), appropriate distance between seats (every 100 metres), more appropriate age friendly seat design (with handles to assist in both sitting and rising from a seated position), longer pedestrian crossing times at larger road junctions or the pleasant microclimate of an area all contribute to the positive walkability of an area and generally don’t negatively impact the accessibility of an area.
Thoughtful forward planning and careful consideration in relation to spatial location can greatly enhance the walkability of an area and small changes can mean big differences to older people.
A walkability audit involves a group of people getting together and walking a short, planned route of between 800 metres and one kilometre (half to three-quarters of a mile) in order to assess it for how easy or difficult it is to walk that way. Walkability audits are a great way of understanding how a town works for older people, and how it could be improved. People assess things like how easy it is to cross the road, if the footpaths are level, if there is any street furniture blocking the way, what the bus stops are like. It is recommended that older people with a mixture of abilities walk the route – some who find it easy to walk, others who for various reasons find it more difficult.
Walkability audits are a fun way of engaging with people and finding out how easy it is to get around the town. It also is a good way for local town planners and road engineers to get involved in Age Friendly Towns Programmes.