Portland, Oregon: Creating an Accessible Built Environment That Helps Residents Stay Active as They Age

This blog post is part of a spotlight series featuring examples of programs and community design changes that get older adults moving. The posts were first published as part of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Midcourse Report: Implementation Strategies for Older Adults and highlight ways to apply strategies from the report in different settings.

At a glance

Who? Portland, Oregon

What? City of Portland initiatives to make infrastructure and systems more age friendly and accessible so that residents can safely get active as they age.

Where can I learn more?

The buildings, streets, sidewalks, open spaces, and other infrastructure where we live and work — also known as the built environment — can have a major impact on our ability to safely get active. For example, it’s safer and easier to walk, bike, or use a wheelchair in a city that has wide, smooth sidewalks and bike lanes. That’s why the City of Portland, Oregon, prioritizes creating built environments that meet the needs of its residents as they age, with a focus on accessibility and equity. 

Through efforts like its Age-Friendly City program, Portland works to create environments that make the city “a great place to grow up and grow old,” says Alan DeLaTorre, Ph.D., Age-Friendly City Program Manager at Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS). 

Portland started its age-friendly initiative in 2006 as part of the World Health Organization’s Global Network for Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. Since then, the city has adopted — and continues to carry out, with its partners — an Action Plan for an Age-Friendly Portland. The plan lays out steps for local agencies to take, like:

  • Provide guidance to help developers create age-friendly housing — for example, with features like zero-step entrances, wide hallways, and accessible bathrooms
  • Partner with organizations that serve older adults and people with disabilities
  • Implement policies that facilitate safe physical activity — like a policy to ensure that transportation facilities are accessible to people of all ages and abilities
  • Create parks and green spaces in historically underserved areas

Strategy: Team Up for Success

DeLaTorre explains that creating a built environment that’s truly “age friendly” requires comprehensive cross-sector collaboration. In Portland, a wide variety of organizations and individuals work together to implement the strategies laid out in the Action Plan for an Age-Friendly Portland, along with Multnomah County’s similar action plan.

For example, Portland’s plan names partners like TriMet, which provides bus, light rail, and commuter railservice. The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) works with TriMet to improve bus stops and routes — and creates sidewalks, curb cuts, safe pathways, and signs to help people get to their destinations. Another partner named in the plan is Portland Parks & Recreation, which works to make green spaces more accessible.

Lisa Strader, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator for PBOT, says cross-agency collaboration is particularly important when it comes to addressing long-standing barriers that make it hard for residents to get from place to place. For example, older infrastructure may need many improvements to be accessible to all community members — more work than any 1 entity can do on its own.

“Making our region as age friendly and accessible as possible requires listening to community and collaboration,” Strader says. “We get the best system when government agencies, community-based organizations, community members, and even businesses work together.”

Impact: Walkable, Bikeable, ‘Rollable’ Neighborhoods

Making sure cities are walkable, bikeable, and “rollable” (meaning accessible by wheelchair) is key to helping all residents get active — and get where they need to go. These efforts are a foundational part of increasing accessibility, which is especially important for residents as they age. To evaluate Portland’s age-friendly environments, DeLaTorre is working with Portland State University on an analysis that includes a variety of metrics. For example, they’re looking at:

  • How far people need to walk (or bike or travel by wheelchair) to get to bus stops, parks, and other amenities
  • The number of parks, street benches, curb cuts, public toilets, and other features in the city

“Looking at metrics provides an exciting opportunity for us to measure our current strengths and identify where we need to do better,” DeLaTorre says. “That way, we can develop practical, actionable plans for making our community even more age friendly and accessible to all.”

Key Takeaway: Seeking Community Input Is Critical

Strader and DeLaTorre agree that effectively meeting the needs of community members requires intentionally seeking their input. That’s why Portland makes a point to co-design the built environment with older adults, people with disabilities, families, caregivers, and service providers. For example, PBOT gathers input from the disability community during walking tours and focus groups, and DeLaTorre recently worked with older Black residents to co-create a mural that highlights physical activity and intergenerational connections.

“Co-creation is at the heart of our work,” says DeLaTorre. “As public servants, our job is to take community members’ vision and figure out what we need to do to make that vision a reality.” 


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