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Aging in Place: The Importance of Walkability

Updated February 21, 2020

Leacey Brown

SDSU Extension Gerontology Field Specialist

Written by Bethany Stoutamire (Former SDSU Extension Aging in Place Coordinator AmeriCorps VISTA Member) under the direction and review of Leacey Brown.

Walkability is an important part of aging in place for many reasons. The Bureau of Transportation statistics estimates that the average household spent $9,043 on transportation in 2014, a significant portion of money for individuals who are living on a fixed income. Older adults who can’t drive or don’t have access to public transportation may also have difficulty accessing goods and services and be at a greater risk of social isolation. Increasing the walkability of communities, therefore, could have many potential health and financial benefits. However, implementing walkability will have different challenges and solutions depending on where you live.

Community Considerations

Urban Areas

New York City, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle are the most walkable urban spaces in the United States. Many of these walkable areas have seen significant growth. While housing in walkable urban areas have some of the highest economic costs, research suggests that these neighborhoods also have some of the highest social equity. One potential cause behind this phenomenon is that the higher housing costs are offset by lower transportation costs. To increase walkability in urban areas, Jeff Speck encourages measures that better protect pedestrians (one way to do this is through curbside parking, so parked cars can act as a barrier between moving traffic and the sidewalk) in addition to working on connecting neighborhoods. It is also important to invest in the downtowns of cities, as these are the initial areas where monetary funds will go the furthest to increase walkability. To learn more about the benefits of walkability in urban areas, watch Jeff Speck’s TedTalk.

Rural Areas

Walkability is particularly difficult to address in rural areas because roads in these areas lack sidewalks. Furthermore, even if the roads have sidewalks, it may be difficult to reach a location through walking as it may be too far away. Unfortunately, this difficulty is exasperated by limited research. Walkability research that occurs in urban areas may not be applicable to rural areas. This may be due to the fact that features such as sidewalk, crosswalks, and street lighting tend to increase walkability in urban areas but aren’t always found in rural areas. Thus, addressing walkability in rural areas requires adjustment and creative thinking. One study that aimed to increase walkability in a rural Canadian town created a walkability map, coding streets in different colors to signify characteristics like the presence of a sidewalk or curbs. Benches and other resting places were marked on the map and also indicated estimated walking difference and time. The map was later used as a basis to add more benches and picnic tables for rest areas and was later used in municipal planning.

Resources to Help

While addressing walkability can be a challenge for communities of all shapes and sizes, there are different resources available. AARP offers toolkits to conduct a walk audit and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has walkability information available as well. Increasing the walkability of a community could have many benefits for people of all ages, though it will take innovation to introduce regardless of the community’s size, features, or demographics.

References & Additional Readings:

Related Terms

Aging in Place, Aging Well