Envejecimiento · 01 September 2019

Ageism in the city: Reflecting on inclusiveness in the city. Is your city accessible to older people?

Most people live in cities. According to the United Nations, today we make it 55% of the population and in 2050 68% of the population will do it. There is a clear tendency for the population to opt for urban life. This trend causes different problems, due to the agglomeration of a large number of people sharing a small space. Some of the problems have to do with the transport of food, for example, which travels long distances to provide for all these people. But also with the transport of people themselves, who have to move from their home to their place of work, which in addition is not usually located in the same place. For example, according to this news item, the average time invested in public transport in Madrid is 62 minutes and 50 in the case of Barcelona. These long periods of commuting have a lot to do with the price of housing and the relocation of work centres: we have to go further and further away from urban centres. Companies also go further, for different reasons, including lower costs, but also because they need larger spaces. 

The central issue in all this is that the city and its design are primarily geared towards the car. Not only are avenues getting bigger and bigger, with more lanes, but parking is also a fundamental problem, so it uses more and more space. In this regard, the United Nations made an appeal, as children have less and less space in the city to be able to play. And yet, recently, the mayor of Spain's largest city was delighted to recover a space that had been pedestrianised. To recover it for cars, I mean. Pedestrianization is conceived from some sectors as an impediment to economic progress, and therefore continues to prioritize a space design oriented towards transport (food, people and things in general) and car parking. 

Apart from the pollution problems arising from the prioritization of urban space for cars (that and how it affects more adults and children I will speak soon) it is often forgotten that those who live in the city are not just tall and fast men with lynx eyesight (and not colorblind), able to quickly cross the traffic light when they go to buy their coffee to take home before entering work. The truth is that the city, as it has been conceived until now, and from a relatively recent time, makes the use of certain spaces enormously difficult or directly denies it, which generates a segregation of uses (how am I going to use a space that I cannot access?). The reference of the use (and that ideal user) of the pedestrian crossing is not trivial. 

It is true that the cities, which now coin the intelligent surname, propose different solutions, although not all of them are as successful as one might think in 2019. For example, in Spain it is common for large cities to have accessible traffic lights for the visually impaired. It emits a sound that allows blind people to be able to cross a traffic light without the help of other passers-by. This traffic light was patented by the Argentinean Mario Dávila in 1983. 

It seems simple: it consists of an electronic device attached to the traffic light that produces sounds at different speeds to indicate when it can cross and when we should stop. Imagine the advance it represents in the inclusiveness of blind people in the use of cities. For me today it is an essential issue, I have it so standardised that I often overlook it, but not all societies seem to devote the same effort to this issue. When I arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the way the traffic lights worked surprised me negatively. By pressing the button that makes (let's say) the pedestrian traffic light turn green, an imperative is emitted (wait!/espera!) that is little less than terrifying. When the traffic light finally turns green, the device shouts a "Walk! (walks), followed by a sound similar to that of machine guns. Word. In addition to the sound pollution, the sound is so loud that it superimposes itself on the sound of nearby crosses. I understand that my ear is not used to it and that's why I can't tell it apart, but I can't help but be critical of the effectiveness of these traffic lights. And even so, this city puts in its efforts, which not all American cities do. I'm also very critical of the symbolism used (for me a hand blinking in red doesn't invite to cross, but yes, here it is) but that's another subject. Accustomed to the operation of traffic lights in Spain, I cannot have good words for the Somerville and Cambridge traffic lights. 

While this type of accessibility is normalized and assumed as necessary (although I criticize the forms) there are other aspects that are not so. And one of them is related precisely to older people, but also to people who register a reduction in physical capacity, whatever the degree. We continue with the question of zebra crossings, essential in a city dominated by the use of the car. Have you thought about how long it takes for a traffic light to turn green? But more importantly, how long is the traffic light green? Is there a traffic light that turns red before you get to the other side? 

If we analyze it, we will see that when the city thinks of pedestrians it does so thinking of people without disabilities or mobility problems, and also fast crossing zebra crossings. I invite you to think about how long it takes you to cross a traffic light, and how the time when the traffic light is green is not the same in all areas of the city. Are there areas of the city that prioritize some pedestrians over others? Does the city discriminate by areas? I use here as a reference a series, Grace and Frankie, starring two incredible actresses over 65: Lily Tomlin, 79, plays Frankie, and Jane Fonda, 81, plays Grace. In the series (season 5, episode 4), Frankie protests at the short time that traffic lights give pedestrians to pass to the other side. This is not a problem for all older people, but it is for those who, for different reasons, walk slower. Of course, it is also a problem for people of all ages. He really protests, going to the traffic agency, and one of the agents agrees to measure the average time it takes to cross that specific zebra crossing. The problem is that it is a zebra crossing that uses mostly young, athletic people (fast all of them) so that the average time is down. When I saw this chapter, still in Spain, it caught my attention that this technique was used, but I was not aware of how it poses a deep problem until I got to the United States. I don't have time to cross some traffic lights before they turn red again, so I can't imagine the difficulty for people who can't for physical reasons. Some areas around Boston are a real horror for people with mobility difficulties. Not to mention that there are no curbs, they are broken or on the wrong side, so the wheelchairs circulate on the road next to the cars. This leads us to think, first, of how important taxes are to invest in the welfare of the city, but also of how the city is oriented towards a certain type of users, among which the elderly do not seem to be included. 

In short, the way in which spaces are designed in the city, as well as urban furniture and intelligent tools (such as traffic lights) is not trivial and will delimit the use made of them in the city. The traffic light is only one aspect of accessibility to space, but it is key not to confine people with mobility problems in delimited areas of the city. 

Under the framework of: Programa Operativo Cooperación Transfronteriza España-Portugal
Sponsors: Fundación General de la Universidad de Salamanca Fundación del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas Direção Geral da Saúde - Portugal Universidad del Algarve - Portugal