Connectivity, safety key in planning for silver population

24 Jul 2021

Straits Times, 24 Jul 2021, Connectivity, safety key in planning for silver population
Preparing for a greying population is more than just installing handrails and ramps in homes and outdoor spaces, as clever land use planning can play a big role in supporting active ageing.

Easy access to amenities such as medical facilities, retail outlets, community centres and green spaces is one way to help seniors age in place, said Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) architecture and sustainable design assistant professor Peter Ortner.

Ideally, seniors should be able to reach a good variety of necessities and amenities within a six-minute walk, or about 400m, from their homes, he said. This can be achieved by having more mixed-use developments within or next to residential districts.

Well-connected, shaded pathways may seem inconsequential but these may encourage seniors to walk to many daily activities, helping them to stay fit and social, noted Prof Ortner.

Making sure it is safe for them outdoors may also go a long way in aiding active ageing. For instance, bicycles are now allowed on pedestrian sidewalks, which may be frightening for the elderly, he said.

"If we are able to move bicycle traffic to clearly designated lanes, we can help the elderly feel safe outdoors and maintain an active lifestyle," said Prof Ortner. "Urban planning can refine the placement of the existing networks of pathways and provide guidelines for their size and layout in a way to ensure comfort and safety."

This call to enhance physical connectivity is echoed by Dr Harvey Neo, senior fellow and programme head at the SUTD's Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities.

"On a broad level, better connectivity between various modes of public transport makes it easier for the elderly to move from place to place… Other measures include ensuring that the amenities the elderly typically use are close to their residences," he said.

In launching the review of Singapore's long-term land use plans, National Development Minister Desmond Lee said Singapore's ageing population will change development plans for the future, with inclusiveness as one of three key principles underpinning long-term planning review.

The latest census showed that those aged 65 and older made up 15.2 per cent of residents last year, a marked rise from 9 per cent in 2010.

A UOB market research report predicted that the total elderly population may become on a par with that of the young as early as 2024, and outnumber the young in 2025.

Prof Ortner noted that while being inclusive is a laudable goal, it is also important to define those to be included.

"A fruitful exercise for the current planning review will be to reach out to the community and reflect together on those whom past plans may have left out," he said.

One of the emerging trends, based on the latest census data, is that Singapore is set to have a significant proportion of single elderly folk in 20 to 30 years' time as more choose to remain single, said the Singapore University of Social Sciences' Associate Professor Leong Chan-Hoong.

He noted that their needs will be different from those of today's seniors, as they are likely to be well-educated, lead healthy and independent lives, and will "probably not wish to live in nursing homes or other assisted facilities".

This segment, which Prof Leong called the "future old", will be attracted to locations with convenient access to infrastructure and amenities, with housing, recreational and social needs not unlike those of younger residents today.

To broaden inclusiveness, he suggested that policymakers consider incorporating a wider range of housing types in the same Housing Board block.

This could mean having flats ranging from one-room to five-room units in the same block, expanding the current housing arrangement, which has a narrower band, to facilitate the future-old right-sizing into smaller units while remaining in the same environment, he said.

"The outcome of this arrangement, however, will also hinge on mindset changes and attitudes to living with people who are demographically different," he said, adding that he is optimistic about age dynamics.

Planners could also ensure equitable access to key infrastructure in each neighbourhood, by analysing which areas have less connectivity or fewer amenities, transport or education facilities, said SUTD's Prof Ortner.

On top of this, embedding more social services and programmes within housing estates can better reduce barriers to inclusion, he said.

Professor Erwin Viray, head of the architecture and sustainable design pillar at SUTD, said the environment around an individual, particularly in their immediate neighbourhood, can help shape a more accepting and understanding culture.

However, he noted that while infrastructure is a powerful tool, it cannot replace the human touch.

"The way we build our environment is important but it's also important to have (blank) spaces in infrastructure to allow for creative imagination and discovery," said Prof Viray. "A friendly environment with friendly architecture, without barriers, will always be a pleasurable place to be in."