Active Aging Depends on Community Design

By Kevin Nelson

My grandfather lived to 97. He was a dynamic orator, frozen-food pioneer, and avid golfer. While he believed that professional success required mastery of a typewriter, he would attribute his long and prosperous life to a good brisk walk each morning. Wherever he lived, on the south side of Chicago or in a suburb on the fringe of the city, he sought out places to live that had ample sidewalks and walking paths to travel on foot to various destinations.

People, like my grandfather, had the desire to walk, run, or ride to keep active, but just as important is the ability to do each of things – that is, whether sidewalks or paths exist to provide safe places for activity. In other words, the infrastructure needs to exist—and be maintained—to give older Americans opportunities to stay active as they age.

Thankfully, there are many programs and national initiatives, such as the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, the National Complete Streets Coalition, among others, that promote walking and biking for all people and in all parts of the country. These organizations provide resources and tools to communities to help them assess the design and layout of their communities to learn whether their sidewalks and streets safe, convenient, and pleasant for all their residents to use.

It is crucial to build and design communities that accommodate a variety of users. Walkable neighborhoods have many environmental and health benefits such as improved air quality and reduction of physical injury and disease. These places can improve residents’ health by giving them opportunities to walk and bike to their destinations instead of driving. Not only does being active improve the health of the walkers and bikers, but the reduced driving reduces air pollution and traffic congestion, which benefits everyone in the community.

A new publication, “Making Healthy Places: Design and Building for Health, Well-being and Sustainability” (2011, Island Press), and website provide research about the connections between public health and community design that includes opportunities for people to stay active as they age. Our neighborhoods need to be designed with all users in mind, and this book provides information that can help communities build places that help seniors and everyone else to stay active.

Although my grandfather is no longer walking with us, he would be pleased to see that there are efforts nationwide to ensure that Americans of all ages have opportunities for that brisk walk each and every day.

About the author: Kevin Nelson, AICP is a Senior Policy Analyst at the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities. He can be reached at

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