For anyone looking at innovative ways in which the urban design profession in Australia can engage with senior residents about how our urban environment may or may not be meeting their needs, the approach taken with regard to the upgrade of Crown Street in Sydney’s Surry Hills a couple of years ago is a wonderful example.

Prior to the redevelopment, volunteer residents of a range of ages and movement abilities conducted a ‘walk and talk’ audit of the existing environment, during which they walked around and talked into an iPad application developed by the University of New South Wales about the features they either liked or disliked. Video and audio input was then uploaded into a database from which a map was subsequently produced showing the location of each of the objects audited in question and whether or not these were beneficial or detrimental to the quality of the environment from the volunteers’ perspectives.

Thanks partly to feedback from this exercise, the upgrade included a number of improvements which were in part aimed at improving universal access, including wider footpaths  a raised footpath crossing, new lighting and street furniture, more greenery and the consolidation of two bus stops into one for better pedestrian access. A second audit, performed after the upgrade was finished, indicated that the environment had been significantly improved.

Given current demographic shifts, the importance of ensuring that our urban environments are friendly to older and less mobile residents cannot be understated. As of 2015, according to the Intergenerational Report released last year, Australia had around 3.1 million people aged between 65 and 84 and 500,000 people aged 85 or above. By 2055, these numbers will have risen to 7.0 million and 2.0 million respectively.

As well as leading to better practical outcomes, moreover, genuine engagement provides our senior community with a sense of empowerment in terms of having input into their surrounding environment as opposed to having design solutions thrust upon them.

Unfortunately, however, approaches such as that outlined above are not commonplace. Indeed, according to Dr Catherine Bridge, an associate professor of the built environment faculty of the University of NSW and director of the university’s Enabling Built Environment Research Program, current practices in this area vary in terms of effectiveness.

Often times, Bridge says, engagement is conducted primarily through town hall meetings. This, she says, brings with it a number of limitations. For members of the community who are more frail and reliant upon public transport, actually getting to the meeting can be a challenge. Once there, input is often dominated by more vocal residents. Presentations of 2-dimensional floor plans or pin-ups can be difficult for older people to visualise or understand. They may not comprehend, for example, that a line in a 2-d drawing is in fact a change in level, or that trees featured in pin-ups might take fifteen years to grow. Finally, in many instances, effective mechanisms by which to aggregate feedback from these meetings and apply this input into effective urban planning were lacking.

“At the moment, the level of consultation with older people which takes place on the ground varies enormously across the country,” Bridge said.

Other commentators are less diplomatic. Kathryn Greiner AO, who chairs the NSW Ministerial Advisory Council on Aging, says the design profession in Australia lags well behind international counterparts in terms of efforts in this area.

“I think the design profession hasn’t actually worked out the demographic changes across the world where we have an aging society,” Greiner said.

“Particularly in Australia we lag behind a lot of countries in what they call age-friendly communities. We are getting very little traction from the design profession at all here. They haven’t actually worked out that the people who are going to have the money in ten to probably fifty years are the aging baby boomers.”

Greiner says there are many examples of whereby universal design is not reflected within the Australian environment. Whereby wheelchair-bound residents can be seen frequently getting on and off public transport in cities such as New York, Paris and Berlin, this was not the case in Sydney, such residents are not often seen on trains and occasionally seen on busses. Nearby her home in Paddington, meanwhile, the task for a mother with two children wheeling a pram up a footpath was not achievable courtesy of a narrow path with streetlights placed periodically throughout the middle of the path.

Greiner says many of the problems revolve around older people and their needs often going largely unnoticed by designers and the nuances and different needs of older Australians throughout various phases of aging not being well understood.

In order to address this, she says focus groups whereby planners obtain specific feedback from older people are necessary whilst there was a need for designers to advocate for the needs of older Australians and ask local councils about feedback from results of engagement with them. Having design students spend time with older Australians as part of their course would also help, she added.

Bridge says better ways of capturing and aggregating the outcome of feedback from older Australians is essential. This could be done through wide scale involvement of the population in question or through representative groups – each of which represents a different section of society from the viewpoint of age, culture and the like.

As Australia ages, the importance of engaging senior members of our population about their urban environment needs is becoming more important.

This is also, it seems, an area where we need to lift our game.