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Architecture Matters - Designing age-friendly communities

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by Ed Koch

I recently returned from a trip to a smaller city in Kazakhstan in Central Asia with a population of 300,000. I went as a volunteer adviser to a firm of architects, engineers and builders.
Architecture Matters - Designing age-friendly communities
Photo: Ed Koch

These professionals wanted to learn more about the Western ways of approaching projects.

They want to be able to compete with large Western and Japanese firms and designers in creating a new ultra-modern city in their capital city of Astana, which is booming because of its gas-and-oil rich location.

However, during my short stay, I noticed how little attention was paid to the elderly and handicapped in the design of most of the older Soviet-period buildings, as well as many newer structures and public spaces.

For example, in many cases, elevators in apartment buildings and in some public structures were so tiny and the doors so narrow that it was difficult to imagine that they were wheelchair- accessible.

To make things worse, the access to the elevator lobby was a few steps above ground with no ramp to the main floor.

Sidewalks were often in poor state of repair and few had ramps at intersections and crosswalks.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with the ex-minister of health of Slovenia a few months earlier on the subject of Age-Friendly Cities, a World Health Organization initiative, which I have since discovered has been adopted by a large number of countries and communities including many in Canada.

The Canadian population is getting older.

Many of these principles are already applied and required by codes and municipal plans, but some aspects are ignored.

We all know that ground floors in public buildings and multi-unit housing developments have to be wheelchair-accessible, that automatic sliding or push-button doors are required where there is general public access, that stairs should have different color nosing for the visually-impaired and have proper handrails to prevent falls.

However, there is another side to the story.

Age-friendly also means providing features that will encourage the elderly and the handicapped to remain active.

It means providing a choice between taking the easy way (an elevator or escalator) and taking the stairs to maintain and improve the abilities which they still have and provide a chance to exercise.

It may mean staircases in addition to escalators and elevators in malls ensuring that there are sitting areas to rest along the way.

These ideas apply to urban planning, for example, parks and pedestrian paths. Some pedestrian pathways shouldn't be shared with cyclists, skate-boarders and roller-bladers to prevent accidents.

Some facilities may have to be dedicated to the elderly, ensuring a number of benches along the way.

Maybe public accessible washrooms are required.

Visually impaired people need attention both in buildings and outdoor spaces. Proper signage and audible signals are a must, as are properly maintained sidewalks in winter to prevent slippery areas and unequal walking surfaces.

The website of the Public Health Agency of Canada at www.phac-aspc.gc.ca is one of many online sources for age-friendly communities and cities.

The principles proposed go far beyond the physical aspects of the environment. They include providing mental and physical activities and making facilities available for the elderly to protect or improve their physical, social and mental capacities.

Is this the architect's role?

It certainly is, as we are involved in the design of interior and exterior spaces and generally have an important influence on the way cities and communities are shaped and in the way we, the citizens, live.

Edmond Koch, FRAIC, is the regional director of the Atlantic region for the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. Direct comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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