When planning healthy communities for humans, at least one concept is worth borrowing from wildlife ecologists. “Umbrella species” is an ecological reference that shines bright in the latest Healthy Community Design Toolkit published by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) and the MA Partnership for Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention with funding from Massachusetts DPH.
Typically, an umbrella species refers to a species whose habitat is also suitable for many other species. Without saying that exactly, PVPC’s new Toolkit (2nd edition) identifies older people as the “umbrella population” for healthy human communities because “what is good for older adults is often good for everyone else” (pg. 91). For example, well-designed and maintained sidewalks and intersections that entice older people to walk for errands or exercise do the same for younger people. In the same vein, a wide variety of housing options and prices in a community benefits people of all ages.
So how can you help make healthier habitats for humans of all ages?
“…focus on specific interventions that will eliminate barriers for older adults with common physical limitations because these interventions will help not only the most vulnerable older adults, but also because the interventions will improve quality of life for everyone else.”
This Toolkit explains what those interventions are that can evolve the built environment in Massachusetts’ communities. Generally, the interventions involve local decision-making processes that at times can be mysterious or intimidating. This Toolkit articulately explains such processes as Community Plans, Site Plans, Special Permit Reviews, Subdivision Regulation, Road Design/Complete Streets, as well as Walking/Biking/Transit Networks. While not a usual focus for public health professionals and advocates, these processes are the key “leverage points” for what this umbrella population needs: a variety of housing options, community supports and services (i.e. “destinations”), transportation, personal safety (both real and perceived), as well as individual resources (financial and social).
While making changes to a community’s built environment doesn’t happen overnight, the results can be profound and long-lasting.
- What is Livable? Community Preferences for Older Adults (AARP, 2014)
- Engineering Physical Activity Back into American Communities and Lives – Mark Fenton’s Resource List
- Massachusetts Citizen Planner Training Collaborative
- Massachusetts Municipal Association
- Massachusetts Healthy Aging Data Report: Community Profiles (Tufts Health Plan Foundation 2014)
- Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative
- “Elderly” No More (New York Times, 2012)