Are urban environments best for an ageing population?

For an ageing society to function there needs to be a movement back to the cities – but cities need to be adapted and designed with this in mind

Cities don’t always seem the most old-age friendly of places. Public toilets that few dare venture into; street-lights turned off by cuts-driven councils; roads choked with cars; the fear of street crime. However there is growing evidence to suggest that as our population ages, cities could actually be the best possible environment for older people.

Housing and accommodation for elderly people is already a pressing issue, with prohibitive costs for institutional care and a move towards helping people remain in their homes. But this is nothing compared to what is to come. The number of people aged 60 and over as a proportion of the global population is estimated to double from 11% in 2006 to 22% by 2050, more than the figures for children. In the UK, the over-65s will increase from 17% of the population in 2010 to 23% by 2035; the over-85s will increase from 1.4 million to 3.5 million over the same period.

The problem, says Elizabeth Burton, professor of sustainable building design and wellbeing at Warwick University, is that “we don’t have much choice at the moment for elderly people – it’s either live in a normal house or live in a care home, and there’s not very much in between.”

She adds: “Most of us have grown up believing in the rural idyll – that people move from city centres to suburbs, from suburbs to small towns, and small towns to villages. But there is a recognition now that as people age and their mobility reduces, they may no longer be able to drive, and their world shrinks – it is therefore much better to live closer to amenities in a higher density of people.”

“The whole approach to older people in British society is unsustainable”, agrees professor Jeremy Myerson, director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and a specialist in age-friendly design. “It is very hard to care for older people – both social care and medical care – when they are thinly distributed across a rural environment, or congregated in seaside towns.

“What happens in Britain is people retire, sell-up, and either move to a seaside town or a country cottage. And actually the countryside is the last place for creating the inclusive accessible environment that older people need with access to highly specialised hospitals and care.”

For an ageing society to function there needs to be a movement back to the cities. But first the cities need to be adapted to meet the needs of older people. “We don’t want a whole generation of people trapped inside because they daren’t venture out”, says Burton. “The problem is that cities still have a bad image … We need a new vision of neighbourhoods that are suited to older people’s requirements. Neighbourhoods that are easier to walk around, relatively high density, with a lot of greenery.”

The good news is it’s not hard to do. A comprehensive study by the World Health Organisation of the age-friendliness of 35 major world cities produced the following old age-friendly checklist: a city that is clean; well-maintained green spaces with adequate toilet facilities; pedestrian-friendly walkways; outdoor seating; smooth, well-maintained pavements; sufficient pedestrian crossings and street lighting.

It is hardly revolutionary. Mere tweaks to the existing urban environment, the report concludes, could “enrich the experience for all ages … instead of designing for the mythical “average” (ie young) person. An age-friendly city emphasises enablement rather than disablement; it is friendly for all ages and not just ‘elder-friendly'”.

But progress is stuttering at best. Hong Kong, for example, boasts one of the world’s highest life expectancies of 82.5 years, with importance placed on green spaces and an outdoor culture. Yet the high cost of living is pushing older people out into low-income satellite towns with problems such as isolation and social exclusion. Paul Yip from the University of Hong Kong has even linked this phenomenon to high suicide rates among the elderly.

At the London School of Economics’ cities centre, director Ricky Burdett, believes that “city centres need to once again be made attractive to people who have moved away … Over the few last decades, particularly in the fast-growing cities in Asia and elsewhere, unfortunately the trend has been towards greater separation, greater zoning.

“That has to change [as] things like the cost of petrol, social and moral issues … need to be factored in to the discussion about planning.”

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