Australia’s ageing population is now firmly in the sights of urban planners and policy makers. The population of Australians aged 65 and over will more than double by 2057 according to federal government statistics, and moves are underway to ensure future communities, public areas and related commercial developments cater to this growing demographic.

Several councils in major metropolitan regions are currently implementing urban design initiatives aimed at making life more pleasant for older residents. Improving and easing access to public places and commercial areas regularly used by older residents is a primary objective as are simple measures such as adding more outdoor seating.

 Consulting the community

Liverpool City Council in Sydney’s west is one local government body being especially proactive around age-friendly design. The council is faced with an over-65’s population forecast to more than triple by 2041 to 68,650 and is incorporating design concepts into new developments as a result. One of the first is Liverpool Civic Place, a new community and local council precinct currently under construction on Liverpool CBD’s southern edge. When completed the precinct will comprise a large outdoor plaza, library/community hub and childcare centre as well as the council’s new offices and chambers.

Setting Liverpool Civic Place apart from similar community developments is that the area’s older residents were consulted on almost every aspect of the build. Thanks to their input, features added to the development include drop off and pick up zones exclusively for people who use mobility aids. The library was of particular interest to the consultation group whose input has led to the addition of meeting rooms for the sole use of older people, a ‘hearing loop’ and more ‘rest stops’ with seating throughout the building. Signage in the library will feature larger than normal fonts and contrasting colours to make them easier to read.

Lane Cove Council in Sydney’s north formed an Age-Friendly Advisory Committee in October 2014 after becoming the first NSW council to join the World Health Organisation’s Global Network of Age Friendly Cities and Communities. Close to 260 cities representing 28 countries are members of the network aimed at addressing issues of rapidly ageing populations. Under the WHO definition, 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”. Of the eight areas pinpointed by WHO to most impact the age-friendliness of a community, buildings and the way they are constructed, outdoor spaces and transportation figure highly.

 Better building

With more than a quarter of residents aged over 55, Lane Cove Council has been following these guidelines for almost a decade, consulting with older residents and implementing changes as a result. Actions taken range from improving pedestrian safety around building sites to ensuring new parking stations offer “good, safe level pedestrian access for older people” and contain “age-friendly features such as handrails and seats for waiting”. When community consultations recently revealed bus shelters were of concern, a three-year contract was struck with a street furniture company to provide bus stops with shelters compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act Standards for Accessible Public Transport.

In Melbourne’s Ascot Vale, the residents and shopkeepers of Union Road were instrumental in the creation of age-and-dementia-friendly toolkits. Age-friendliness was a critical part of the street’s redesign, with solutions that were as simple as they were effective: more seating, better lighting, and re-configured footpaths and walkways that improved access to parks, the local library and public amenities.

 Making access easy

Associate Professor Melanie Davern from the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT is one of Australia’s foremost experts on liveability and age-friendly communities. Much of her research has focussed on ways of creating environments that support older residents as well as other generations and the disabled. Outdoor spaces and buildings such as commercial developments housing services for the elderly were just one factor Prof Davern examined in a recent paper discussing how to apply WHO’s age-friendly city guidelines to local planning. Ease of access was key, “as older people experience difficulties associated with access to public buildings and the lack of handrails, narrow corridors”.

Developers and local planners could also look to adding “blue space” – outdoor fixtures built around water such as fountains and ponds – because mounting evidence was showing it had positive benefits for healthy ageing. Increasing green spaces and ‘blue infrastructure’ had been found “to be protective for healthy ageing while supporting those with cognitive decline, or illness,” according to Prof Davern’s research.