Catherine Hurley, City Sustainability Coordinator          RoundTable photo

On Sept. 29, at the Levy Senior Center, the City celebrated the Age-Friendly Evanston Action Plan, which was unanimously adopted by City Council on June 20. Catherine Hurley, the City’s Sustainability Manager, and Susan Cherco, chair of the Task Force that developed the plan, summarized the plan for about 55 people who attended the event, and encouraged people to volunteer in the process going forward.

The Process and Key Findings

In 2010, 12.3% of Evanston’s population was 65 years or older, said Ms. Hurley. By 2020, the percentage is projected to grow to 20%. This projected growth is due to two factors: baby boomers turning 65, and people living longer. Ms. Hurley said the age-friendly plan was developed to ensure that Evanston will be a good place to both grow up and grow old. 

The City launched the Age-Friendly Evanston initiative in 2013. As part of this effort the City joined the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities and decided to develop an Age-Friendly Action Plan in alignment with WHO’s principals and guidelines.

“In practical terms, an age-friendly city adapts its structures and services to be accessible to and inclusive of older people with varying needs and capacities,” said Ms. Hurley.

In December 2013, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl appointed a task force to develop a three-year plan aligned with the City’s livability goals and the standards set by WHO and AARP. The Task Force spent more than two years gathering input and data through work groups, focus groups, professional roundtable discussions, and two surveys, and it developed recommendations to make Evanston a more age-friendly city based on the input.

More than 50 community members served on the Task Force or one of its working groups to develop a three-year action plan, laid out in a 32-page report.

Ms. Cherco said an “overwhelming finding” is that “the older adults who live in Evanston want to stay here.” She said, though, there are things that make it difficult for older adults to do so. In a community survey, many respondents said they are unable to afford the rising cost of home ownership and high rents; gaps in transportation make it hard to get to medical appointments and to social, recreation and educational activities; there are failures in communication about the many resources and services that are available to Evanston residents; and older persons face challenges negotiating outdoor spaces due to poor design, maintenance, or lack of amenities.

“These results are not unique” to Evanston, said Ms. Cherco. They mirror those found in cities throughout the world. … “The age-friendly action plan addresses these and other issues.”

Ms. Cherco emphasized that although the plan has a focus on older adults, it is “really about livability,” and “what is good for an 80-year-old is good for an 8-year-old. The proposals in this plan will benefit every Evanston resident.”

Challenges and Action Steps

According to a community survey, 43% of the respondents reported that housing was the most critical need for older adults in Evanston, and 28% reported that transportation was the most critical need. While they may be the most critical, they may also be the most difficult to address.

Evanston lacks a sufficient number of affordable and senior-appropriate housing units for its current population, says the Task Forces report. The City lost more than 3,300 affordable housing units between 2004 and 2013, “which has put dramatic pressure on senior residents looking to find suitable and affordable housing. … Older adults and others on fixed incomes are unable to afford the costs associated with remaining in Evanston.”

According to the survey, 30% of the respondents said they worry about being able to stay in their homes because of the cost.

In the last 10 years, the City has been able to add 329 affordable housing units, and it has adopted the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, which requires a developer or certain multifamily housing projects to include affordable housing or to pay a fee in lieu of doing so. When adopted, City staff estimated that the ordinance may result in the development of several hundred affordable housing units.

Some of the things recommended by the Task Force are to create additional affordable rental units for older adults using the community land trust model; expand shared housing opportunities; expand opportunities for subsidized assisted living; and explore innovative approaches to expand affordable housing options.

“These build on existing efforts in the community,” said Ms. Cherco. “We also recognize that more is needed to slow the loss of affordable housing in Evanston and therefore the housing committee will continue to explore innovative approaches to expand affordable housing options and will make additional recommendations on their findings.

“Transportation gaps negatively” impact the lives of older residents directly and indirectly. For example, she said, the lack of transportation may make it difficult for older residents to get to medical appointments. She added that the lack of transportation may also make it difficult to participate in social and civic activities, which may increase social isolation, which is associated with poor health outcomes for older adults.

She said the Task Force recommended that the City define and design a comprehensive intra-City transportation network that connects to outside transportation networks. She said the City is taking an initial step to implement this recommendation. It has received a grant that will enable it to research and gain understanding about the routes and transportation services needed by older adults and persons with a disability.

The City also learned from the community survey that many respondents felt that drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians needed to show more respect for the rules of the road. The Task Force recommended that the City educate drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians on the rules of the road, and promote tolerance.  

The report says another common theme in the survey responses is that residents had difficulty in accessing information about healthcare, social services, and activities. The Task Force recommended that the City’s 311 system be expanded to provide this type of information for older adults, that as part of the redesign of the City’s website, it be made age-friendly; and that the City’s Public Access cable TV channel provide information and programming for older adults.

The Task Force has also made recommendations concerning community support and health services, outdoor spaces and parks, and social and civic participation and employment.

As an example, members of the working group on outdoor spaces and buildings have evaluated the City’s 70 parks based on age-friendly criteria, and presented their findings to the City’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Services. The Department has already acted on a number of the recommendations., said Ms. Cherco.

The Task Force also recommended that the City use an “age-friendly” lens in designing all projects and programs.

Next Steps

The Task Force will continue to meet to oversee the implementation of the plan during the next three years, said Ms. Cherco.

In addition, the City is assembling a Future-Oriented Task Force to identify and explore best practices and innovations that are being implemented in other communities and will make recommendations to the City’s Health and Human Services Committee. Helen Gagel, a member of the Task Force, said a big part of the visioning committee’s role is that it will determine what will work in Evanston, consistent with the community’s values.

“It’s quite a milestone today,” said Wally Bobkiewicz, City Manager. “We’re going to continue to be supportive of this initiative and to roll it into other initiatives underway to become the most livable community.”

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...