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Rising to the Challenge of an Ageing Population

With low fertility and long life expectancy, Singapore is ageing fast. By 2030, almost a fifth of the population will be aged 65 and above.

Faced with this silver tsunami, Singapore has stepped up its drive to extend the active years of its residents. Unveiled in July 2015, the S$3 billion Action Plan for Successful Ageing incorporates over 70 initiatives covering 12 areas – health and wellness, learning, volunteerism, employment, housing, transport, public spaces, respect and social inclusion, retirement adequacy, healthcare and aged care, protection for vulnerable seniors and research.

As Senior Minister of State for Health Dr Amy Khor noted, “Population ageing is not something to fear, but a great opportunity for Singaporeans to maximise the opportunities from longevity. The plan will enable us to build Singapore into the best home to age in.”

As accessibility of the built environment plays a key role in enabling the elderly to remain mobile and socially active, and age in place – live where they have lived for as long as possible – the BCA has taken steps to improve accessibility.

Barrier-Free Built Environment for All
Universal Design (UD), a concept which is gaining traction across the world with increasing life expectancy, has been adopted by Singapore in its push to develop a barrier-free environment. It requires practitioners to design a built environment to cater to the diverse needs of all users irrespective of age, ability and situation.

The BCA began promoting UD for the built environment, including buildings, parks, sidewalks as well as the transport system, with the publication of the Universal Design Guide in 2007 to provide a complete set of guidelines for adoption in all building designs.

In addition, it updated the Accessibility Code, a set of essential requirements that all new developments must comply with. The Code now places greater emphasis on UD concepts and provisions, including wider corridors, non-slip strips at staircases, the provision of more toilets with grab bars and family-friendly nursing rooms.

To recognise progressive developers and architects who incorporate thoughtful UD features in project developments, the UD Mark was introduced in October 2012. Since its inception, over 90 awards had been given out to deserving projects.

Since then the bar has been raised. Under the UD Mark Version 2.0 (2015), enhanced criteria, such as the installation of assistive hearing facilities for the elderly with hearing difficulties and design features for persons with visual disability assisted by guide dogs, are taken into account for certification.

To encourage adoption by building developers and architects, the BCA collaborated with SPRING Singapore and the Singapore Standards Council (SSC) to launch the Singapore Standard SS605 – Guide for Age-friendly Homes. The standard provides guidance on specific design considerations that are beneficial to the elderly to enhance their safety, comfort and accessibility at home. These include the provision of grab bars, non-trip flooring and adaptable toilet layout in homes.

Said the BCA’s Dr Keung, “BCA is constantly looking for ways to push the envelope for greater inclusivity in our built environment. This is why we are launching the enhanced UD Mark criteria to set higher certification benchmarks for building owners. In addition, the Singapore Standard SS605 will be a useful guide to help more stakeholders go beyond the minimum Code requirements and apply inclusive design principles in their projects.”

Grappling With Basic Accessibility
But Singapore still has a large stock of old buildings built before the Accessibility Code was introduced in 1990 which lacks accessibility. Many are located in Singapore’s commercial and financial heart, the Central Business District. Nearly half of the buildings in the area still lack basic accessibility.

Rather than use legislation to force existing buildings to be adapted for accessibility, Singapore has opted to engage building owners using the carrot rather than the stick.

“We want people to willingly… integrate accessibility into their whole scheme of things rather than making it mandatory,” Ms Goh Siam Imm, BCA’s director of Universal Design Department, told The Challenge. “With the ageing population and government extending the retirement age … the workplace needs to be friendly to older folks.”

Together with her team, Ms Goh engages building owners by first writing to the individual developers or building owners and making an appointment for face-to-face meetings. During the meetings, the UD team audits the buildings, gives advice on upgrading, and explains the principles and importance of UD.

Private building owners can draw on a S$40-million Accessibility Fund to defray the cost of upgrading. The 10-year fund, 2007-2016, was introduced to help buildings built before 1990 which are not Barrier-Free Accessibility compliant to upgrade to provide basic accessibility.

The BCA has enjoyed better success in Orchard Road, where 9 in 10 buildings are barrier-free, from 4 in 10 in 2006.