Changing Cities for Changing Demographics

By 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities. Unfortunately, cities are too often imagined with the younger, working-age resident in mind, with older people often left by the wayside and not incorporated into the mainstream of thinking and planning. However, we face a rapid global change in demographics caused by leaps in science and medicine. In 2015, 8.5% of the population of the world was aged 65 or over (617 million people), a figure expected to grow to 12% of the population by 2030, and to a staggering 16.7% of the population by 2050. It is, therefore, pivotal that cities are designed with our ageing population in mind.

            In 2006, the World Health Organisation (WHO) began developing what has now become a global ‘Age-friendly Cities’ movement, involving over 200 member cities and communities from across the world, all aspiring to create ‘age-friendly’ environments. Defining what an ‘age-friendly’ city ought to look like, however, is an ongoing project. One key aspect of this is a focus on ‘active ageing’, i.e. facilitating older residents’ continued participation in public life. Despite the large proportion of cities’ inhabitants that is aged over 65, they continue to live on the periphery. US-style retirement towns have gained popularity globally yet face increasing backlash for their contribution to age segregation. Indeed, humans are naturally social animals, with love and belonging playing a significant role in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It follows, then, that this need for interaction ought to be at the centre of considerations when designing homes for the ageing.

            One way in which this can be realised is through architecture. Chronic loneliness continues to be a battle which prevails in the most vulnerable sections of society, especially in more deprived areas of cities. Retirement homes are a popular solution to this issue, imbuing residences with a sense of community. At buildings like The Architect in Utrecht, and Witherford Watson Mann’s almshouse in London, care residences are stitched into the building with the rest of the housing alongside communal spaces and the nursery, stressing the need for social connection. These projects share spaces both between neighbors, with school children, and, on a larger scale, the local community, through gardens, allotments, shops, and public squares. Further to this, architects are moving away from the traditional model of a retirement home and opting for more open and modern designs, prioritising the incorporation of a sense of vitality through light and openness, as in Amit Studio’s design of a retirement home in Israel. Another route chosen by other architects is through a more open design, blurring the distinction between the outside and the inside, as in the extension of a monastery for ageing residents by Dutch studio, Shift Architecture Urbanism.

            City planning also has a key role to play in adapting urban environments for our ageing population. It is important to be sensitive to older people’s experience of urban space as they face the disproportionate impact that small ‘micro-environmental features’. The ‘Campaign To End Loneliness’ has established a three-pronged framework of methods in order to address such a complex issue: individual intervention, neighborhood action, and a whole system approach, making these visible to those who do not (as yet) register the impact of these features in quite the same way. Acting on this would involve preventing urban sprawl in order to reduce the distance between transport stops, shops, benches, trees for shade, public toilets. Combining this with measures such as improving pavements and allowing more time to cross the road all encourage older people to go out, thereby facilitating ‘active ageing’.

            Action is already being taken, with Manchester recently being crowned the UK’s first ‘age-friendly’ city. The publication of RIBA’s Age-Friendly Handbook also demonstrates that there are potential plans of action, involving small but effective changes. It is key that other major cities, such as London and Birmingham, adapt to the future demographics of their residents in order to avoid being left behind.

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