Reimagining Wellington: Growing up and old in the city
Too often our cities are designed for able-bodied, neurotypical middle-aged adults commuting on a 9am-5pm schedule. That means they neglect two key groups: the old and the young.
Right now, our urban environments are being redesigned to be more vibrant, to allow a deeper engagement with nature, and to encourage people to do more things locally. But those opportunities aren’t being extended to those at either end of the age spectrum. For different reasons, the old and the young are more likely to need help getting around our urban spaces, whether because of reduced independence or fears around safety.
Currently, older residents are more likely to use a car: it allows them the freedom to keep doing what they are doing. But eventually they will have to cease driving. This can be a difficult and emotional transition for older people, as they still need to go to the supermarket, visit friends and participate in social activities.
So-called on-demand mobility solutions, such as taxis and rideshare schemes, can support many such trips. Ideally public transport would be an option, too. But even getting to the bus stop can be a challenge, especially when there’s a badly maintained pavement or a lack of crossing points. If people feel unsafe or the route is too onerous, they just don't make the trip.
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Then there are problems with buses not running, or with boarding the bus, or just with finding somewhere to sit. All this can put people off buses and subsequently reduce opportunities for exercise and socialisation. But by 2034, more than one in five New Zealanders – approximately 1.2 million people – will be 65 or over. If we don’t include them and their needs in our planning and design work, their wellbeing will likely worsen.
At the other end of the spectrum, children are also sensitive to changes in the urban environment. Most streets are not designed with them in mind, and can be unwelcoming and unsafe. The car-based school run, whether driven by time-poor parents or the perceived safety risk of walking to school, also isolates children from their urban environment (as well as worsening congestion and reducing physical exercise).
The fabulous mission statements around Getting Wellington Moving are to be applauded, and desperately needed to support intensification of our capital, but major infrastructure rebuilds take time. So how do we start putting our aspirations for intergenerational and inclusive cities into practice? Fortunately for us, small actions can add up to major change.
Let’s take a typical street in our neighbourhood, and re-imagine it as a place where local kids can walk, cycle and scooter together, or even play games; where friendlier and more connected neighbours can sit on a bench under a tree for a chat and encounter passers-by. Research increasingly highlights how physical activity and free play can push back against the effects of sedentary behaviour and screen time, enhancing people’s physical and mental wellbeing and reducing obesity rates.
Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Authority now recommends temporary vehicle restrictions on certain streets to allow for play – which is just as important for adults as for kids (maybe minus the tree climbing!). Although senior playgrounds – play space for older adults including exercise equipment or a flat area for group exercise – are rare here, they have been common overseas since the 1990s and the Auckland Design Manual now has a new resource – Designing Play Spaces for Older Adults.
The Office for Seniors, meanwhile, has developed a great series of micro-actions that don’t cost much but could make a massive difference to both older people and children. Installing more public seating and places to rest would help people of all ages get out more. Pocket parks and ‘parklets’ (creation of a public space in a parking space) can cheaply and easily create spaces for sitting, starting conversations and playing. More public toilets are badly needed.
Smooth and puddle-free footpaths and safe, obvious and step-free road crossings – don’t sound as sexy as gadget-driven solutions, but are fundamental to improving people’s movements around their city.
If, in short, we identified everyday journeys people want to take – and asked ourselves, what if we redesigned the city around them? – we could make life so much easier for both young and old, and open up a world of movement that’s accessible and enjoyable to every generation.
- Gemma Dioni is a transportation engineer with a key interest in ensuring communities have access to transport choice, and she has a passion for good streetscape and public realm design to support placemaking.