Author: Guneet Kahlon, Intern (2022), Cities Forum
Editor: Ronika Postaria, Associate Consultant, Cities Forum
Ronald Reagan, the former president of the United States, founded World Senior Citizens Day in 1988. To quote him, “For all that they have achieved throughout their lives, and for all that they continue to do, we owe our gratitude and sincere greetings to our senior citizens”.
The elderly population happens to be a passive yet indispensable segment of our society. Over time, they have been portrayed as insufficient and dependent creatures, incapable of living on their own. Although the statement may have some truth, it is our responsibility and our cities’ need to realise how it is the surrounding setting that does not support them. It is crucial to acknowledge the demands of the elderly and strengthen our healthcare and support facilities.
Numerous initiatives such as ‘age-friendliness’, ‘healthy ageing’, ‘ageing in place’, and ‘active ageing’ might have different approaches but are fundamentally alike. Limited mobility and age-related frailty make older adults more dependent on local sources of social support. Our street designs are one such element in the urban realm hindering easy movement by the elderly rather than comforting them.
WHY LOOK INTO MOBILITY FOR THE ELDERLY?
Active ageing is one such idea that aims to make the years of ageing healthy and lively for the elderly. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines it as the optimisation of opportunities to enhance the quality of life in terms of health, participation and security. Participation here imparts different meanings from all angles: physical, social and economic. As far as urban planning is concerned, the physical setting is more of its domain. On top of that, the physical environment is one of the six key factors influencing Active Ageing. Thus, the better the built environment, better the participation.
In order to strengthen the urban engagement experience for the aged, uninterrupted and comfortable movement is a must. Ease of movement in cities can aid the elderly in participating in urban scenarios. This could be done through improvements in mobility and motility. While the latter would be a typical health sector affair, mobility is a dominant discussion amongst urban practitioners. The elderly encounter mobility issues the moment they step out of their residence. Be it due to poor maintenance of roads and pavements or inadequate traffic management; there is an evident lack of continuity for the ease of movement on foot.
AGEING POPULATION: The situation worldwide
Population ageing has been a global concern since the last decade. It is expected to only intensify over the coming years. The world is experiencing substantial transformation in demography, with the elderly population multiplying at relatively fast rates. Over the next three decades, the global elderly count is prospected to double, and by 2050, the share of the population aged 65 and above will be 16%. A 2017 United Nations Report on world population ageing claims that by 2030 the 60+ population will outnumber children under age 10. This seems to be relevant in Indian stats too.
The Indian scenario
The National Statistical Office (NSO), in its report ‘Elderly in India’, suggests that the number of 60+ persons would increase by a whopping 41% – reaching 194 million in 2031 from 2021’s 138 million. Moreover, the enactment of family planning and women empowerment schemes have had a positive impact but resulted in the total fertility rate (2.0) falling below replacement level fertility (2.1). This implies that the current generation is not producing enough population to replace itself, eventually leading to a higher old to young ratio. The latest National Family Housing Survey 2019-2021 backs this statement. It also shows a decline in the population below the age of 15. This ubiquitous ageing of populations calls for more elderly-cordial approaches to be implemented in our cities.
Neighbourhood Supports for Active Ageing in Urban India; a 2019 study that focused upon improved quality of life of the Indian-aged population in our outdoor environments revealed them to be inaccessible. No accommodation of age-specific needs in urban policies and design; lack of pedestrian infrastructure and priority; facing physical barriers; poor maintenance of footpaths and high curbs are just a few examples in a long list of issues faced by the older people on the Indian streets. Per the study, ‘Road crossing’ was a key challenge as the elderly felt vulnerable to the increased motorised traffic. A fraction of adults felt unsafe on the streets, limiting themselves from going out, and further asked for facilities like benches/seating, handrails and shaded paths.
Similar were the findings of the Helpage India survey where the elders stated the streets to be chaotic, leading to an irksome experience while travelling. The outdoors do not cater to pedestrian needs, let alone the elderly. Over speeding, rash driving, busy junctions, and ill-lit streets restrict their movement. Moreover, the pathways were said to be heavily encroached and discontinuous, limiting people with disabilities and needing wheelchair access.
In both these above-mentioned studies, the most frequent concern that popped out was that of walkability and fast-moving traffic. Of all road accident fatalities in India in 2019, 8% were pedestrians (around 34,000). The lack of pedestrian-friendly design is a challenge for all ages.
India has no elderly-centric plans/norms/strategies/special initiatives. However, certain government policies slightly touch upon better access and active ageing besides focusing on health, housing and social inclusion. Two of them are:
- National Policy on Senior Citizens 2011 talks about age-friendly, barrier-free access; promoting age-friendly facilities and standards of universal design by the Bureau of Indian Standards; and Implementation of standards and addressal of local issues and needs of the ageing population by the local government.
- Integrated Programme for Senior Citizens (IPSrC) assists State/ UT Governments /Panchayati Raj Institutions / local bodies with Programmes for encouraging Active and Productive Ageing through Regional Research Training Centres (RRTCs).
Age cordial programs can enhance empowerment through physical spaces as a starting point for social interaction. Cities around the globe are coming up with specifically designed plans and strategies for coping with the demands of the senior natives. There are various examples like building a City for all ages-Singapore; Ennis age-friendly town; age friendly Darebin, and masterplans, including Miami-Dade TPO Ageing Road Users Strategic Safety Plan 2017.
The Miami-Dade TPO includes various management and tech-based solutions to achieve safe commuting for ageing road users. Improved facilities such as larger, simpler, and better-placed guide signs and street signs; eliminating multiple confusing signages; retroreflective pavement markings to increase visibility; Pedestrian refuge islands at large/busy streets; longer walk times (3 feet/sec) and better lighting are some of the prominent elements. It also adopted newer technologies such as solar-powered in-road light systems and the Green Man+.
The Green Man+ was originally initiated by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) of Singapore that allocates a longer green man time for the elderly and Persons with Disabilities (PWD) when they use signalised pedestrian crossings fitted with Green Man+ tech. It works by tapping the Green Man+ card on the reader mounted above the standard push button on the traffic light pole. Once the card reader verifies that it is a valid card, the system will extend green time, which ranges from three to 12 seconds depending on the size of the crossing. With the extension of the crossing time, elderly pedestrians can complete the crossing at a more comfortable pace.
Simultaneously, a solar-powered in-road light system alerts motorists about the presence of a pedestrian walking or a pedestrian preparing to cross the street. Lights are embedded in the pavement on both sides of the crosswalk and oriented to face oncoming traffic. In-road warning lights produce a daytime-visible light focused directly in the driver’s line of sight, indicating a curve, hazard or road crossing.
WHERE DOES INDIA STAND?
Leave no one behind (LNOB)‘ is the central, transformative promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It aims to secure inclusion and reduce the inequalities and vulnerabilities that leave people behind and undermine the potential of individuals. Indian cities, however, are quite distant from being inclusive and universally accessible, particularly for the elder populace.
To address these issues in the Indian context, instead of short-termed actions, there needs to be a well-defined and well-constructed set of measures. Nevertheless, the question arises: who will do it and how?
The reply to whom could be the local government as it is an apt medium for execution at the smallest scale. Moreover, a local governing body is aware of and considers the community demands, besides the fact that working at the base level can be precisely evaluated and thus, result in more productive outcomes. For the ‘how to do it?’, we have three key focal points to conceptualise: ‘slowing down’, ‘accommodating pedestrians’, and ‘revitalising streets’. Out of these, ‘accommodating pedestrians’ is a prerequisite for the other two besides being a shared interest of all ages. Devising these ideas into concrete actions would help in resolving the prime challenges that the Indian elderly come across: pedestrian-discouraging streets; fast moving traffic and inadequacy of street infrastructure, as discussed above.
INDIA’S WAY OUT
Despite being given a green signal through policies, the urban local bodies (ULBs) often do not take up initiatives revolving around active ageing, which could be due to a lack of direction to proceed. Availability of a specific instruction manual from the government is thus necessary. Along the same lines, the Indian Road Congress has prepared draft guidelines for pedestrian facilities. However, these guidelines are likely to focus on pedestrians in general and may not be adequate to address the elderly.
Therefore, we need to have an entitled set of guidelines, designed particularly on a cordial built environment for the elderly. A handbook on the same would do, to which the ULBs adhere and bring to practice. Some strategies for on-street aid could include:
- installing pedestrian and pelican signals, especially at busy junctions;
- decreasing road crossing distance through pedestrian refuge islands and bulb-outs (curb extensions);
- hand railings along footpaths at major roads; and
- 3D illustrations on road crossings that help in lowering speed.
However, before all these, footpaths ensuring smooth and continuous flow, with removed encroachments and cut-off heights, are a must. Simultaneously, sensitising the young towards senior citizens to patiently give them the way and avoid rash driving can prove effective.
The coming years are of the aged populace. So why not facilitate a lively and safe stroll in the city for the active agers, so they do not have to toil on the streets? We ought to give voice to the elderly prospects of an urban environment separately to ensure their requirements do not get neglected amongst other active age groups. Little gestures like these to convey that the elderly are essential might give them a sense of belongingness and attract them to engage with the urban setting actively. Ageing is a natural process; keeping the ageing active is a choice!