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Developing cities for the old and young

Urban planning studio helps Erie County prepare for rapidly aging population

Graudate students in urban planning recently presented recommendations for building a more age-friendly Erie County to the community. The graduate studio was directed by Bumjoon Kang, assistant professor, and PhD student Molly Ranahan. It's part of UB's broader research support of the AARP-sponsored Age-Friendly Erie County initiative. 

Published October 11, 2017

UB planners and designers have developed a set of recommendations that will help Buffalo and Erie County rebuild in ways that attract young residents while also meeting the needs of another surging population – those age 65 and older.

Their work is part of the AARP and World Health Organization Network of Age-Friendly Communities, a national effort to help cities ensure people of all age groups enjoy walkable streets, access to transportation and services, and social connectivity. The national trend of population aging is pronounced in Erie County, where the proportion of those age 45+ is greater than any other county in New York State.

Since 2015, the University at Buffalo Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center) has been collaborating with the Erie County Department of Senior Services and AARP New York, to develop a community-driven action plan. The IDeA Center is known internationally as a center of excellence on research and design of products and environments that meet the needs of all users, regardless of age, ability or background. 

Most recently, a group of graduate urban planning students at UB were engaged to develop a series of recommendations based on citizen input, comprehensive data analyses, and an assessment of best practices from communities across the U.S.

The Master of Urban Planning studio was led by Bumjoon Kang, an assistant professor who studies the built environment in relation to health outcomes, and Molly Ranahan, a research analyst at Erie County Senior Services, who received a PhD of Urban and Regional Planning from UB.  The studio was sponsored by a grant from the Health Foundation of Western and Central New York.

Kang says the studio sought to fill a critical gap in preparedness for the region’s aging population. “Unfortunately, our built environments are not designed for ‘Aging in Place’. The studio aimed to assess our environments and policies to prioritize needed policies.”

Brittany Perez, an occupational therapist and senior research associate at the IDeA Center, reinforces this point - and the promising results of Kang and his students' work: “Erie County has unique livability challenges across its distinct urban, suburban, and rural regions, with each region experiencing an increasingly diverse aging population. The students were able to assess both shared and specific needs in these regions to provide meaningful recommendations to improve quality of life across the county. The students’ enthusiasm and interest in engaging older adults in their work is a great example of a successful intergenerational collaboration that can be replicated to improve our community.”  

Drawing from Age Friendly Erie County’s survey of more than 1,000 citizens across the county and GIS and demographic data collected by the students, Kang’s class developed an Age Friendly Index with municipal-level assessments of age-friendly indicators, including access to parks and green space, social participation, employment, health services and civic engagement.

Best practices and age-friendly community guidelines set by AARP and the World Health Organization’s Global Network for Age-Friendly Cites and Communities informed the students’ recommendations. The standard of the “20-Minute Village” is a safe and walkable community where essential destinations and services, from parks and schools to grocery stores and health centers, are reachable within 20 minutes for young and old. Such supports allow citizens to age in place, in their own home and community.

The resulting Age Friendly Index revealed disparities between the county’s northern, more urbanized, communities, and the county’s southern communities, where population density is relatively lower and services more inconsistent. Student conversations with citizens at community centers revealed additional concerns, from icy sidewalks in the winter, to inadequate job training, to a lack of information about activities and services in their respective communities.

In addition to increased access to public transportation and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, the report recommended the incorporation of universal design practices in housing and the expansion of intergenerational programs in the arts, history, music and environmental education, with supporting case studies from communities across the U.S.

Kang and his students presented their findings and report to members of the Age Friendly Erie County team at a public presentation in May. The professional-level document includes mapped analyses, comprehensive design guidelines and compilations of citizen testimonial. The students work has already generated new avenues of research, including a studio this fall, led by the IDeA Center’s Ed Steinfeld, to integrate inclusive design and age-friendly strategies at Buffalo’s Silo City complex. Kang and one of his students, in partnership with AARP, presented their research at the Leading on Livability in Albany, NY, last spring. The studio was also featured in AARP’s Fall 2017 Livable Communities Newsletter.

According to Perez, Age Friendly Erie County is eager to foster new transdisciplinary connections across UB both to advance the research and provide opportunities for experiential, community-engaged learning.