With the number of older people steadily increasing, why aren’t we designing our cities to be age-friendly?
I was running a futures workshop recently, and someone put up a virtual post-it note for the year 2030. It read: ‘Planning policy requires Age-Friendly Homes’.
I thought, great call. And then I thought, why should we have to wait till 2030 for this, when we’ve known about our ageing population for decades?
I always counsel that the future is impossible to predict and that we need to prepare for multiple potential outcomes. But one area where we have a reasonable amount of certainty is demographics. We can see change coming a long way off: the youth bulge in the Middle East, the global growth of the urban middle class, or ageing populations in the developed world.
A predictable future
By mid-century, globally, there will be more peoople over 65 than children under 15. And, because our world is urbanising, most of those people will live in cities. In the UK, by 2030, one in five people in the UK will be aged 65.
In countries like mine with an increasingly elderly population, there is a growing need for age-friendly infrastructure and there will be growing pressure on governments to spend money.
with an increasingly elderly population, there is a growing need for age-friendly infrastructure
Given that these changes are entirely predictable, are national and local governments planning adequately for the future in which more and more of us will grow old living in cities? Why, according to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), is new housing is being built with little regard to the needs of our ageing population?
What should an age-friendly city be like?
Of course older people are not a homogenous group, and they will have different needs in different places and at different times of their lives. In the UK we do know that elders in cities are less likely to drive, favouring public transport and walking. So they need accessible, affordable and frequent public transport that connects the parts of the city they need, not just the commuter routes.
As we grow older, we often spend more time in our homes and communities, so our immediate environment has a significant impact on our health and wellbeing. Good green space and high-quality public realm (with facilities like seating and toilets) are important, as are level pavements and safe crossings.
Most people don’t want to move in old age. Elders will need a wider range of accessible and affordable housing options to remain independent and connected to their communities. For centuries we have built our urban houses with lots of steps and steep stairs. Existing housing stock will need to be adapted to provide homes that are acessible and warm: programmes to improve the energy efficiency of homes — as well as being vital for tackling climate change — bring benefits to older people, too many of whom live in fuel poverty.
older people may benefit from increasingly popular concepts like ‘the 15-minute city’
Access to local shops and services is also important, and older people may benefit from increasingly popular concepts like ‘the 15-minute city’ where the aim is to offer citizens what they need on their doorstep, with grocery shops and cafes, parks and and health centres, a walk away. Toyama in Japan where 30% of residents are over 70, has adopted a ‘Compact City Strategy’ based on great public transport and encouraging people back in to a revitalised city centre.
Staying in the city
In the past it was assumed that those elders who could afford to wanted to move to the suburbs, live a gated village, or buy a bungalow on the coast. However, an increasing number can’t afford to move and many want to be close to their families and friends, and stay in the communities in which they raised their children.
Figures from the American Association of Retired Persons indicate that 90% of older adults prefer to stay in their homes or communities for as long as they can. In the US, many towns and cities are adopting the concept of ‘aging in place’. That might mean a resident chooses to remain in their home as they grow older, or they might downsize to a smaller home within that same community.
Helping people grow old well in cities can contribute to the health of the city itself
For those who want to move, half say they are prevented from moving by the lack of housing options. People being trapped in homes that don’t suit their needs, particularly family-sized homes, is not only bad for them, but is exacerbating the housing crisis.
Helping people grow old well in cities can contribute to the health of the city itself. Older generations have a huge amount to give and too many urban areas — particularly city-centres — have become mono-cultural, dominated by young people and verticle drinking. Multi-generational communities can have a civilising effect.Bringing older and younger people together can also help tackle the loneliness epidemic. In the Netherlands, university students are living for free in retirement homes, benefitting both age groups.
Across the world, hundreds of cities have signed up to the World Health Organisation ‘Age Friendly City’ programme to create physical and social environments that allow people to remain healthy, independent and autonomous long into their old age.
In the UK, there are positive steps. Manchester: wants to be ‘A Great Place to Grow Older’ with age-friendly neighbourhoods and services, and getting more old people enjoying culture in the city. ‘Bristol Ageing Better’ wants the city to be a brilliant place to grow old and is working to reduce social isolation among older people. Hundreds of businesses in Nottingham have signed up to the city’s ‘Take a Seat’ scheme, where a “We are age-friendly” sticker in shops tells older people that they are welcome to have a rest.
Multiple benefits from designing for old people.
When designing cities, what is good for old people can be positve for all generations. Legible signage, accessible buildings and walkable neighbourhoods can benefit everyone. A physically less able person or a parent with a buggy face many of the same hurdles navigating the city as older residents. Old and young want access to affordable public transport and safe, pleasant public and green space in which to socialise.
what is good for old people can be positve for all generations
Age UK have produced a great guide for designing age-friendly places. Allowing people to keep socially and economically active for longer also reduces dependence on public services and relieves pressure on over-stretched council budgets.
The Future of ageing
What does the future look like for ageing in cities? Autonomous vehicles will be with us and — as long as they’re not just targeted at the young and rich — could be a huge benefit for older people unable to drive, helping them stay active and participate in city-life. Digital tools, like social media and virtual reality can enable different kinds of interactions, building peer-to-peer relationships and allowing health diagnostics and care to be delivered at home.
Networked environments with sensors on our streets and in our cars, offices, homes — even our bodies — can measure how older people are getting on and support independent living. And we’re likely to see more innovations in assistive technologies like pill dispensers, memory aids, even exoskeletons, that help people overcome .particular challenges.
It is crucial that old people are involved in creating these future solutions
The design and redesign of homes and neighbourhoods will increasingly respond to needs of different generations, built for a lifetime but adaptable for different needs. Local authorities will continue to innovate, incentivising the development of age-friendly housing and ensuring that local plans are specific about housing older people and allocate sites for a variety of age-friendly options.
It is crucial that old people are involved in creating these future solutions. Too often technology innovation and urban design is exclusive and fetishises youth. Older people should be able to co-design the technologies, communities, and services that will affect them.
Redesigning the city
As we emerge from the covid pandemic, lots of urban buildings and spaces are going to need to find a new function. In the UK, there will be less demand for retail space and offices in many parts of our cities. In the US, redundant shoppping malls and strip-malls are already being repurposed for senior housing. Apartment-living in cities can make a lot of sense for elders concerned with accessability and access to amenities. And it can make a lot of sense to city administrations wanting to re-imagine their city centres.
Planning in advance for this ageing future is a big opportunity for businesses, a growing market for the property sector, and a prudent financial strategy for city administrations. And why wouldn’t all of us advocate for age-friendly cities? We’re growing older every day, (my kids delight in reminding me of my advancing years), and that future is coming for us all.