Designing cities for the aged
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The world’s cities are getting older. Can engineering and urban planning make them more age-friendly?
“As I get older, there seem to be more and more stairs to struggle up and down,” sighs Barbara Rushton, 78, of north London. “I try to regard them as an exercise challenge, but they make getting about increasingly exhausting.”
Rushton is far from alone in finding that the urban environment has become more inhospitable as she has aged. Time and again, studies with older citizens reveal similar kinds of frustrations. Sometimes these are problems with obvious solutions – there not being enough benches, for instance, or uneven paving. Other times, they are more profound issues, such as a sense of isolation caused (in part) by the way that towns and cities are laid out.
According to charity HelpAge International, there are more than 500 million people aged 65 or over living in cities worldwide. In many ways, this is a huge success story – testament to improved public health and lifestyles. However, it is also an enormous demographic challenge – the World Health Organization reckons the 60+ demographic will double globally by 2050. Yet, at present, most cities continue to be designed for the needs of the young and working people.
With urban populations all over the world inevitably getting older in the coming decades, how should cities prepare?
Certain countries – and notably Japan, which has the world’s highest population share of people over 65 – have begun to learn about the effects of ageing and how municipalities can adapt.
There can be many positives from having an older population. For example, in the Italian city of Bologna, the authorities have tried to nurture an intergenerational ‘start-up culture’ by creating networks where retirees with business experience can advise young go-getters. In Tokyo, yoro shisetsu are a popular kind of intergenerational care facility where older people can volunteer in an attached nursery, which helps combat the sense of social isolation.
However, in many parts of the world, city life is not so friendly to older people. For example, charity Help the Aged reports that nearly one in ten people aged over 65 trip or fall on uneven pavements every year in the UK. Elizabeth Pillar, a retired resident of Hackney in London, points out that while such falls don’t always result in hospital treatment, “it could affect the older person’s confidence and may result in them going out less and [experiencing] a loss of independence”.
Uneven pavements are just some of many challenges that younger people (and perhaps urban planners) often fail to see. Older people report that they wish there were more comfortable benches dotted around town, well-maintained public toilets, more handrails on stairs, traffic lights that give pedestrians longer to cross the roads and more strongly enforced bans on cyclists zooming along pavements. These may seem like small problems, but when they combine it can make the urban landscape feel very unfriendly.
Then there is the large-scale design of cities, which contributes to the sense of isolation that many older people feel. Over half of people over 75 in the UK live alone and have limited contact with people. Of course, the causes of this problem are complex, yet the urban environment holds some responsibility. If it is intimidating to leave the home, if one has to drive and if conveniences and social groups are too far to walk (or there aren’t decent transport services available), then there’s a certain inevitability in people becoming isolated. More sensitive urban design could play a big role in reducing this isolation and make cities more liveable for the elderly. What might it look like?
Picture a housing complex with a parade of ground-floor shops at its heart that are easily accessible on foot. You can find all the usual amenities anyone would need here – grocers, hair salons, cafes, medical and dental services and a travel agent. While cars can pass through, there is a strict speed limit and plenty of pedestrian crossings.
There’s also a well-used community centre. It hosts a youth club on Saturday afternoons, a mums’ and babies’ group in the mornings and an old people’s lunch club most days. Sometimes the different groups linger and chat to one another. Besides the community centre, there’s an adaptable social space – it houses a library and is furnished with desks where people can work. A monthly business advice group takes place there, where retired folk provide advice to local companies.
This is the kind of environment that Dr Anthony Tuckett of the University of Queensland, Australia, reckons would be authentically age-friendly. He adds that such a complex would be “designed, constructed and maintained to have level pavements, places to sit, reliable and effective lighting and access to safe, clean and appealing public toilets” too. While this kind of neighbourhood is far from common at present, there are a handful of examples around the world which show what is possible.
Designing cities more sensitively to accommodate older people and to make them feel that they are engaged in their communities seems like a good idea on many levels. It would reduce burdens on social services and hospitals, while making people feel safer and more connected. This is a nice idea, but how feasible would it really be?
What would an intergenerational and age-friendly housing development look like? Japan is a pioneer in this area.
Take, for example, the Cocofump complex just outside of Tokyo. The development is authentically multigenerational – with a kindergarten onsite where older residents can volunteer, units for people who want to live independently, as well as a different home for assisted living.
What’s more, older residents are encouraged to find part-time jobs on the site – from gardening to caring for much older residents – all of which gives people a greater sense of belonging and connectedness.
Manchester is regarded as a global leader when it comes to age-friendly initiatives. In 2010 it was the first municipality anywhere to sign up to the World Health Organization’s network of age-friendly cities. To be recognised, a city needs to demonstrate that it is taking steps to change the urban landscape, transport, services and so on to be more welcoming to older people.
One example of initiatives in the city is the Manchester Age-Friendly Neighbourhoods (MAFN) project. MAFN was launched in 2016 with the goal of encouraging resident-led projects to make neighbourhoods more age-friendly. MAFN then gave out grants to 125 individual projects that were suggested by local charities, community groups and individuals.
What does making an urban area more age-friendly actually look like? Professor Mark Hammond of Manchester University was a coordinator at MAFN and describes how a portion of the fund was distributed in Hulme, a deprived inner-city neighbourhood. “There were many older people in Hulme who felt nothing was going on in the area,” he says. However, a local church group was keen to provide community services yet was unable to because the building’s toilet was not compliant with disability regulations. As a result, it could not host many kinds of groups that would have been attractive to elderly residents. Therefore, MAFN provided a £1,200 grant to upgrade the bathroom to be compliant with disability regulations and very quickly the church could set up many new groups for the community.
“Since they made the change, many more people have been coming to the dinner club, food bank and other groups, including people who wouldn’t have come along before.” Hammond points out that this may feel like a fairly pedestrian upgrade, yet it can change the lives of many people.
“I teach an MA in architecture,” continues Hammond. “I often start one module by asking students to recall the last time they had a meaningful conversation with an old person who wasn’t a relative.” Unsurprisingly, very few students can claim they really know much about how old people live.
Problematically, this extends to their professional training. Few student architects, engineers and urban planners learn to think about the needs of older people during their studies. This then continues into their working lives too. If you’ve never been taught that up to a fifth of people could really do with some more benches in a neighbourhood, there’s little reason you would think to include them when designing a landscape.
Ageism is also certainly at play, too. Hammond points out that new building developments almost never appear to consider that older people exist or would want to live in them. “If you ever see posters or promotional brochures for new housing developments, they’re almost always targeted at young professionals or families.” Perhaps the biggest risk here is of embedding the segregation that already exists in society by building the urban environment in such a way that people from different generations simply never meet.
While there’s no doubt that many cities are still struggling to adapt to their changing demographics, there does at least seem to be growing awareness of the problem. Dr Tuckett of Queensland University reckons “social policy-makers (in government) have an increasing awareness and even a willingness to see neighbourhoods and cities [become] age-friendly. However, amid an array of competing claims, needs and fiscal constraints I am not so sure yet if older people’s are a first priority.”
In forward-thinking places like Manchester, the shift seems to have started happening. Hammond is a member of the Greater Manchester Ageing Hub: “We’re increasingly getting contacted by developers and architects, saying that being ‘age friendly’ is an area they want to get into and looking for advice on where to get started.”
For example, the city is in the process of planning a regeneration project called the Northern Gateway in the city’s Collyhurst district. Hammond and his colleagues were invited to interview existing residents about what they hoped to see from the regenerations and fed this back into the planning.
There is certainly an ethical argument that urban planners, architects, engineers and developers should try and make cities more age-friendly out of a sense of civic responsibility. But perhaps more prosaically, the elderly population is growing fast and it makes good business sense to adapt to that fact. Tuckett reckons that “smart architects and urban planners would go out and ask the older person: ‘What do you want in your housing, transport, your community design?’ Then build that, and they will come. They will buy it. It will sell.”
Making cities more age-friendly
Smart technology could play a part in helping cities adapt to older populations. Could these apps help?
In 2017, the Dutch municipality of Tilburg began trialling a service called CrossWalk. People with reduced mobility sometimes find they don’t have enough time to cross the road at timed traffic lights. CrossWalk is a phone app which automatically communicates with the timers on pedestrian traffic lights to give older users more time to cross.
Some people with Alzheimer’s have a tendency to ‘wander’ and get lost walking around a town or city. Some might find it creepy, but one solution would be to place a wearable device on the person’s wrist or clothes that can be tracked by an app called AngelSense. This then allows families and carers to monitor where the person has got to.
As we get older, worsening sight can be a real impediment. Recognising this, the city of Helsinki created Blindsquare. The app, which works in many places around the world, gathers information from the user’s smartphone to learn what’s near them. It can then help with navigation, as well as alerting them to nearby restaurants and entertainment and letting them know when they’re near places of interest.
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