In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) approached the Institute on Aging (IOA) at Portland State University (PSU) as a potential collaborator in its Global Age-Friendly Cities Project, asking if we would be willing to collect data concerning Portland’s age friendliness. The invitation was extended thanks to Portland’s reputation for good urban planning and a recommendation by Dr. Martha Pelaez of the Pan American Health Organization, based on the IOA’s interest in global aging issues and our research capacity. Despite the lack of funding and the compressed timeline of the project, we were excited to have this opportunity to build on our previous work, bring together the disciplines of planning and gerontology, honor PSU’s motto, “Let Knowledge Serve the City,” and improve our city for today’s and future generations.
A total of 33 cities in 22 countries around the world participated in the original project, of which Portland was the only U.S. city (New York City later joined). WHO’s goal for the study was to identify concrete indicators of an age-friendly city and produce a practical guide to stimulate and guide advocacy, community development, and policy change to make urban communities around the world age friendly. The Portland study involved conducting eight focus groups: three with older adults, one with informal caregivers of older adults, and four with service providers and businesses (public, private, and nonprofit) within Portland’s city limits. The project was guided by a team of advisors, including older adults and representatives from AARP Oregon and other public, private, nonprofit, and university organizations. The questions posed in the focus groups were aimed at gaining a better understanding of the everyday experiences of older adults with respect to features that were age friendly, features that represented barriers to age friendliness, and suggestions for improvement in eight topic areas focused on the physical and the social environment.
Findings from the Portland study were published in 2007 in Portland’s Final Report and a Summary of Findings, which was printed with support from AARP. These findings, along with the results from each of the other cities, were used in crafting WHO’s Global Age-friendly Cities Guide and have been disseminated locally, nationally, and internationally. The findings confirmed the importance to older people of accessible transportation, outdoor spaces, and buildings, as well as the need for accessible and affordable housing. The findings also highlighted the importance of fostering the involvement of older people as active participants in society, overcoming ageism, and providing greater opportunities for civic participation and employment.
The WHO study laid the groundwork for today’s PSU-City of Portland-Community partnership. In 2010, WHO launched its Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities (and now Communities) to provide a means for linking cities and ensuring a common understanding of the label “Age-Friendly City,” and to ensure that interventions undertaken toward becoming age friendly are “appropriate, sustainable and cost-effective.” The IOA approached Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams, with a request to collaborate on an application for membership to the network. Mayor Adams agreed, and the application was submitted. In addition, the mayor appointed us to his Portland Plan Advisory Group (PPAG). The Portland Plan is a three-year action plan preparatory to a citywide effort to revise the city’s 25-year strategic, comprehensive plan to make Portland a more thriving and sustainable city for all of its residents.
In June 2010, the IOA received notification of Portland’s acceptance as one of only nine cities selected for initial membership in the WHO Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities. In a press release, Mayor Adams noted that the city and its bureaus would work with the IOA to create the network’s required three-year citywide action plan in conjunction with the Portland Plan and proclaimed, “We are excited that the City of Portland has been chosen for membership in this first wave of WHO’s Global Network of Age-friendly Cities. As the mayor of Portland, I feel it is important that we embark on the process of creating a city that is friendly to people of all ages and abilities.” He added, “The timing of the Network’s creation falls directly in line with the Portland Plan, and we feel that we are in a great place to move forward with a synergistic partnership. We look forward to a relationship with the WHO and other cities within the Network.”
To begin Portland’s work as a member of the network, the IOA recruited an advisory group with representatives from the public, private, nonprofit, and university sectors. Members include older adults and representatives from AARP Oregon, Elders in Action (a Portland-based advocacy group), the offices of Mayor Adams and Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish, the Bureau of Planning of Sustainability, United Way, Coalition for a Livable Future, the Urban League, the Native American Youth Family Center, Multnomah County Aging and Disability Services, Bloom Anew (an organizational consulting and coaching business), Metro (Portland’s regional government), and Northwest Community Capital Fund.
Formal recognition of Portland’s membership in the network came in 2011, with the arrival of the official certificate of membership from the WHO, which was presented to Mayor Adams and City Council.
In April 2012, the Portland Plan will go before Portland’s City Council for approval. Included in the Portland Plan are recommendations that aim to make Portland a “place for all generations,” a direct result of the IOA-City of Portland-Community partnership resulting from the Global Network and our involvement in PPAG. Specific recommendations in the Portland Plan include initiating Portland’s Action Plan for Age Friendliness, to be developed in conjunction with the IOA; strengthening Portland’s new “Framework for Equity” to ensure that older adults (and all Portlanders) have access to safe neighborhoods, decent housing, healthy food, efficient public transit, and parks and green spaces; prioritizing the expansion of accessible, barrier-free housing; locating older adults and mobility-impaired individuals nearer to community hubs that offer safe, welcoming places that encourage physical activity, social inclusion, and interaction; encouraging schools, colleges, and universities to flexibly accommodate multiple functions and serve community members of all ages; developing new approaches to accommodate health services and the corresponding workforce; encouraging intergenerational mentoring opportunities; and improving safety and accessibility on civic corridors served by public transportation (e.g., sidewalks, safe crosswalks, transit stops).
Efforts to create Portland’s Action Plan for Age Friendliness include working with Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) as it begins revising Portland’s Comprehensive Plan in May. One effort toward this end is the culminating workshop project of a group of six master of urban and regional planning students from PSU that is focused on understanding Portlanders’ vision for an age-friendly Portland and creating policy recommendations in collaboration with BPS and the IOA. IOA researchers are also collaborating with PSU’s Institute for Portland Metropolitan Studies on the creation of age-friendly indicators that will be used to track progress over time. Finally, since Portland is situated within a larger metropolitan region, and other communities have begun work toward creating quality environments for older adults, including Clark County (Washington), Clackamas County, and Washington County, we are collaborating with those efforts with the ultimate goal of enhancing our region’s, and our state’s, age friendliness.
Margaret Neal and Alan DeLaTorre
Dr. Neal and graduate student Alan DeLaTorre conducted a study in Portland as one of 33 cities in the World Health Organization's Age-Friendly Cities project.