How Urban Parks Keep Seniors Healthy and Living Longer
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How Urban Parks Keep Seniors Healthy and Living Longer

Toronto must adapt to an aging population. For the first time ever, there are more people over 65 than under 15.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

16302828447_b0c8d54248_z Photo by Ben Senior from the Torontoist Flickr pool

Chatting with friends, exercising on outdoor elliptical machines, learning dance routines, and practising opera singing in front of a portable television; these are all activities that draw seniors to parks in China.

Research of Nanchang, a Chinese city of just over five million, indicates that more than half of park users were over 60 years old. This stands in contrast to similar studies of North American cities, which found fewer seniors visiting parks and lower levels of physical activity overall.

The study found that while older men in Nanchang were more likely to engage in passive uses of parks, such as sitting to socialize or play mahjong, older women were more likely to pursue active uses. After walking, the most common forms of physical activity observed were dancing, using public gym equipment, and playing badminton.

As Toronto adapts to the needs of an aging population, the popularity of Nanchang’s parks offers pointers for a city where, for the first time, more people are over 65 than under 15.

Discussing the ways seniors interact with parks, Dr. Samir Sinha says: “They’re not simply a place with trees and grass, they are powerful spaces that can support gathering and mobility.”

Dr. Sinha is the director of geriatrics at the University Health Network and Mount Sinai Hospital and he explains that parks offer many advantages as people age. Social isolation is an issue for seniors but parks represent an opportunity to connect with neighbours.

In Dr. Sinha’s words, for some seniors, “Doing something might just mean getting out of the house.” Falling is another risk for older adults but by creating spaces that encourage activities ranging from bocce to tai chi, parks promote exercise and help prevent falls.

Dr. Sinha has contributed his understanding of healthy active aging to the Toronto Seniors Strategy [PDF]. The strategy was adopted by City Council in 2013 and contains recommendations on the design of outdoor spaces as well as other topics like communications, transportation, and housing. Two years later, 95 per cent of recommended actions had been implemented. That figure rose to 99 per cent in 2016.

Building on this success, Andrea Austen, the City of Toronto’s lead for the strategy is now working on what she terms “the Seniors Strategy 2.0.” This process involves more than 60 consultations in all wards and an online survey that attracted 6,000 responses. The information will shape a new strategy, including recommendations, that will go to Council by the end of the year.

9031652035_74d944ac82_z Photo by Kat Northern Lights Man from the Torontoist Flickr pool

For now, speaking to seniors has enabled Austen to identify several features of parks that encourage older adults to get outside and engage with their communities. First and foremost is appropriate seating. Since seniors may tire more easily they need places to rest. A spot to sit can also facilitate social interaction. However, Austen notes that, for seniors, not all benches are created equal. Although high-tech seating has been installed in Boston, older adults look for benches that are not too low and provide both both back support and arm rests for leverage.

As a result, one of the actions of the 2013 strategy was installing 500 benches, with a focus on areas where seniors live. The strategy also called for an increase to tree cover in parks. According to Dr. Sinha, seniors are at greater risk of dehydration. Light sensitivity also increases with age so the glare of sunlight on shiny surfaces can be uncomfortable when spending time outside. The shelter and shade of trees addresses both of these issues.

While seating and trees promote passive uses of parks, programming and amenities invite more rigorous physical activity. Outdoor exercise using adult fitness equipment was one of the most popular activities observed in Nanchang. Although the Guardian has a photo gallery of similar multigenerational playgrounds in around the world, the trend hasn’t yet caught on in Toronto.

The City offers outdoor exercise stations in five locations as well as extensive programming for different age groups. Austen says that one of the things she heard at consultations with seniors was, “We want more!”

But improvements to parks will have limited impact if seniors are unable to reach these spaces. Pedestrian safety is a serious concern for seniors: the vast majority of pedestrian deaths last year involved people over the age of 55.

So although an age-friendly city includes benches, trees, and perhaps even outdoor fitness equipment, taking full advantage of parks requires safer sidewalks and longer crossing times.