Accessibility for All: Smithers’ Age-Friendly Plan Builds Access into Planning

“One of the key pieces in our Age-friendly process,” said Yazmin Banuelas, Planner for the Town of Smithers, “was recognizing the strength and possibility of Access Smithers.” A local, grassroots organization, Access Smithers has six core volunteers who work to create a livable, Age-friendly, universally designed and inclusive community—the perfect community champions.

“They are working volunteers,” said Banuelas. “One is a reporter, another is an Universal Access & Barrier Free Design consultant, and they all bring a lot of passion to their advocacy.”

In fact, Access Smithers alerted Smithers to the Province’s Age-friendly Program, and worked with Planner Liliana Dragowska and other staff to submit the town’s grant application. Smithers was awarded the grant, and after tendering the work, awarded Access Smithers the contract.

With the help of four consultants, Access Smithers began work on the Age-friendly assessment. To focus their efforts, the town directed them to target municipally-owned sites such as outdoor spaces, sidewalks, trails, public buildings and recreation infrastructure, as well as town policy and plans. Once the assessment was complete, Access Smithers used the World Health Organization’s eight Age-friendly domains as a framework to complete their drafted action plan.

Positioning a philosophy that “older adults are the experts in their own lives” at the heart of their work, the consultants engaged in extensive community engagement between August and October of 2016. This included an online survey with 100 respondents, 43% of whom were 60+ years of age, and another 40 paper surveys, completed exclusively by seniors. The consultants also walked, reviewed, and physically examined the town’s physical infrastructure.

Even this inspection led to positive change. For example, the staff at the Smithers Public Library removed some of the hazards identified during the accessibility audit. The inspections and engagement complete, the consultants wrote the report, and since its adoption by council many Age-friendly changes have occurred including:

  • Increased sidewalk replacement and repair budget by $25,000, doubling the previous budget
  • Installed a hearing loop system in the council chambers to improve accessibility for hearing impaired individuals
  • Improved accessibility of washrooms at Fall Fair grounds
  • Improved Willow Vale Marsh trail system with slopes and grades conducive to persons with mobility challenges. Also provided an accessible picnic table and five benches, and through a partnership with the Bulkley Valley Naturalists incorporated accessibility into the ecosystem signage.

The partnership between Access Smithers and the town led to one of the Access Smithers members, Glenys SnowDymond, appointment to the town’s Advisory Planning Committee to review applications through an accessibility lens and provide input. Also, the Access Smithers Age-friendly Committee was formed—a group that had evolved from previous working groups, comprised of Access Smithers board members as well as a council member and, since 2014, the building inspector.

“It is very important the building inspector sits on our committee,” says Banuelas, “because ultimately, it is at the building permit stage that they can influence and recommend accessibility solutions.”

Another important victory for Access Smithers that built off the Age-friendly Assessment and Action Plan, was lobbying the Northern Development Initiative Trust to change its annual business façade improvement grant to include applications that will improve access. Before Access Smithers’ efforts, the grant worked to enhance the economic viability and vibrancy of northern and central B.C. communities by supporting visual improvements such as facades, signage, murals, architectural features, lighting and awnings. Now, for the first time, the 2018 applications will include improved accessibility.

Every community has different strengths, and often the key to moving a project forward is identifying and building on those strengths. In Smithers, that was Access Smithers, a group with extensive connections and knowledge who, with a little help and funding, is creating positive change.

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