A lack of public seating, the state of its footpaths, and the difficulties in crossing the road at four principal crossings have been identified as the biggest problems in improving the ‘age-friendly’ pedestrianisation of Athy.
This was revealed in a report on accessibility in the town called the ‘Athy Walkability Report’, which was published last week.
“We discovered there were 27 bins on the Main Street of Athy and no public seating,” said Derek Whyte, a planning consultant of 18 years from Newbridge, and author of the report.
“There were a few seats in Emily Square but they were surrounded by ESB boxes, so you wouldn’t want to sit there anyway,” he pointed out.
“Public seating is a large part of attracting people to walk into towns, but local authorities have been removing seating from towns over the last 25 years because of anti-social behavior,” he explained.
“This dissuades people from walking more in towns, but there are age-friendly designs with handles that stop people from lying on them that can be re-introduced,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, the four points of contention in Athy are the Leinster Street and Stradbally Road junctions, Crom-a-Boo Bridge, and Emily Square.
“The town is a difficult place for wheelchairs users to get around, the wider footpaths are used for parking and business owners tend to leave their signs out, sometimes I think they just don’t realise and worst still – they don’t care,” was one of the more instructive quotes taken from the report.
The report was commissioned by Kildare County Council last year, and Mr Whyte organized the survey on a day in September last with people from Age Concern Ireland, KARE, and the Irish Wheelchair Association to partake.
Mr Whyte has some skin in this game, as proven last month when a similar study by him into the Castlefen estate in Sallins saw it declared the first ever ‘Age Friendly’ estate in Ireland.
He has also produced a similar report for the GAA on Croke Park with the aim of making it the first stadium in Europe to attain age friendly recognition.
“It is hoped that the guidelines I produce will form a template for other GAA venues.
Mr Whyte has done similar work in towns such as Donegal, Dungloe, Kilrush, Howth, Blanchardstown, Balbriggan, and Mountrath which has seen them adopt ‘age-friendly’ town plans, but Athy is the first such in Kildare.
“Just to give you a flavour of what I do and what I am trying to achieve – I specialise in age-friendly planning – basically a concept where developments are designed aimed at older people,” he explained
I go into towns, gather a representative group of people and walk the town, identifying where things could be better for older people to get out and about in the town,” he said.
“I can learn more in 30 minutes than I could with two years of research,” he added.
The changes generally involve a change in mindset and some minor physical amendments but they generally don’t cost a huge amount of money to local authorities,” he pointed out.
Derek uses a quote from a Canadian colleague to illuminate his ethos.
“If you design for the young you exclude the old but if you design for the old you include everybody”.
“A big part of this is making towns, villages and cities more walkable and allowing people to become the dominant element in the built environment – not cars,” he offered.
“It is not a car bashing exercise either, cars are the friends of towns and villages and are needed, but it is about a better balance in favour of the pedestrian that I am a consultant for Age Friendly Ireland,” he said.
“It is clear that the participants expressed very strongly that the town is car dominated and that a significant imbalance between the pedestrian and the car exists to the benefit of the car.
“While is it accepted that the car is a town’s friend and a town needs the car to survive, the balance between the car and the person needs to addressed and re-balanced in Athy.
“The Emily Square, Edmund Rice Square public realm improvement works and potential TII scheme works will undoubtably improve Athy for the better, but it will also highlight the remining difficulties in Athy,” he offered his conclusions.