Towards a more socially inclusive region – Haaga and the senior residents

As Haaga, along with the rest of Helsinki, experiences a demographic shift, the need for age-friendly design is becoming increasingly important. The population of older people living in cities is growing at an unprecedented rate. In the future urban housing and mobility should be designed with  the elderly residents in mind. Wellness, quality of life, independence, and a sufficient amount of social activity are among the key ingredients of living a happy old age. But how do the senior residents in Haaga area conceptualize the components of quality living? Do they feel that their needs are adequately met in current Haaga?

In order to examine these questions in more detail, I have drafted questions for a questionnaire that could be used for example in semi-structured interviews among the senior residents of Haaga. Naturally one would have to consider very carefully how a senior resident would be defined. Every age limit is bound to be arbitrary, and there is naturally a considerable variety of conditions and needs between 65 year olds and 80 year olds.

The opening section of the questionnaire intends to gather information about factors affecting their quality of life, and how those factors are connected to their habitational environment. What kind of activities do they have? Does the built environment support their daily routines? Do they feel an overall sense of capability in their lives? The second section addresses the practical support that the elderly might need. For example are there reasonable distances between transport stops, shops, benches, trees for shade, public toilets, and so on? Do they feel sufficiently engaged when it comes to decision-making within their neighbourhood? Or would they be willing to have some more influence on the infrastructure changes in their area? The third section tries to survey some of the problems that the eldrely might face. Do they feel a sense of insecurity in Haaga? Are there any places that they prefer not going to? Either due to lack of attainability or because of other reasons?

Naturally these questions are only preliminary and include only a minor portion of all the possible aspects. However, they could help finding ways to involve older people into the social life of their neighbourhood. By anticipating and responding to people’s needs the city would be able to capitalise on the significant social resource that older people provide. The most important precondition for this is to look at the city through the eyes of the eldrely.

Task for the mid-term: Challenges in an Aging City

Rapidly aging population is a common challenge for most of the Western countries. Thanks to some significant breakthroughs in medicine and healthcare, years of quality living have been added to millions of peoples’ lives. But as a downside, this development presents some significant economic and other risk factors to governments all across the world. This applies especially to Finland, which has displayed some of the worlds fastest-growing rates in population aging.

This course of demographic development poses a considerable challenge for many urban areas as well. According to City of Helsinki Urban Facts –center (Helsingin kaupungin Tietokeskus), Haaga has one of the largest shares of over 64 year old population among all districts in Helsinki, 19 percent of the inhabitants. The percentage is above the average level in Helsinki, which is 15,8 percent. (City of Helsinki Urban Facts 2013, 15.) As the economic powerhouse of the entire Finland, Helsinki as an entity will almost certainly be in a more advantageous position compared with many other Finnish cities, thanks to steady inflow of new residents and labour. But how well have individual city districts, such as Haaga, been preparing to progressively aging population? Does the city of Helsinki provide adequate requisites to the elderly population and their well-being in Haaga? What are the courses of action that could provide the best support to senior residents in their everyday life?

I have chosen park benches and their frequency in Haaga area as the subject. Park benches are a concrete way of supporting elderly people and their independent living. Walking is an excellent form of exercise for older adults. Walking strengthens muscles, improves balance, and helps to prevent weight gaining, thus lowering risks of many illnesses, such as heart disease and osteoporosis. It seems plausible to assume, that an adequate amount of park benches on a reasonable distance from each other would encourage elderly people to make strolling a somewhat regular rutin. Benches would partly improve health and quality of life, and therefore support elderly peoples’ possibilities to reside in their own homes as long as possible.

Park benches are usually placed into locations where they cause least problems for city maintenance. Especially in Finland the requirements of relatively frequent snow plowing place some limits to selecting both location and amount of park benches. Practical limitations like this, however understandable they may be, can sometimes contradict the core philosophy of Nordic welfare state.  One of the key ideas of a comprehensive welfare state is to make decisions from the viewpoint of those, who belong to the underdogs of the society – not those who could function in any conceivable circumstances. In some cases park benches have attracted some local objections, because they occasionally allure homeless people to sit and sleep on them. However, this can hardly be regarded as a valid argument against adding some extra benches.

I would approach the subject first of all through observations in Haaga district. According to the conventional wisdom, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. By disembarking to the actual area, it is easier to get an idea on whether there is a sufficient amount of benches along the local footpaths. As a groundwork I tried to contact the Helsinki city officials to find out, whether they have precise information concerning for example the amount of benches located in a given area. Unfortunately I was not able to obtain the information about the matter within our time limit. Another possibility would be to conduct a survey among the elderly residents in Haaga, for example among people over 68 years of age. After gathering and analyzing the preliminary data, it would also be worth considering to do some interviews or using other qualitative methods to deepen the understanding on the residents’ opinions. Do they find their neighborhoodaccessible? Have the local urban structures been sufficiently adapted to confront the challenges posed by the increasing age of the inhabitants? The older the population gets, the more essential it becomes to make sure that the elderly are not feeling themselves isolated in urban communities. Every useful and affordable solution to relieve the problem should be examined thoroughly. And, as Occam’s razor has demonstrated, the simplest solution is usually the correct one.

References:

City of Helsinki Urban Facts 2013. Helsinki by District (referation done on Oct. 18th 2018) https://www.hel.fi/hel2/tietokeskus/julkaisut/pdf/14_04_22_helsinki_alueittain_2013_tikkanen.pdf