Urban Forum – Creating ‘age-friendly cities’: developing a new urbanism for all generations

cities@manchester are organising a public panel debate on Tuesday 30 April, 6pm at the Anthony Burgess Foundation on ‘Creating ‘age-friendly cities’: developing a new urbanism for all generations’. The event is free (but please book your place here) and will be followed by a drinks and food reception.

Creating ‘age-friendly cities’: developing a new urbanism for all generations

Developing ‘age-friendly’ cities has become a key issue for improving the quality of life of all generations. Population ageing and urbanization have in their different ways become the dominant trends of the 21st century, raising issues for all types of communities. By 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will be residing in cities. By that time many of the major urban areas of the Global North will have 25 per cent or more of their population aged 60 and over. Cities will remain central to economic development, attracting waves of migrants and supporting new industries. However, the extent to which what has been termed the ‘new urban age’ will produce ‘age-friendly communities’ remains uncertain.

Cities have many advantages for older people in respect of easy access to medical services, provision of cultural and leisure facilities, shopping and general necessities for daily living. However, urban life can also create threatening environments, producing insecurity, feelings of exclusion, and vulnerability with changes to neighbourhoods. These issues affect all age groups and not just older people. However, with older people spending 80 per cent of their time in the home and home environment, support from the immediate neighbourhood and beyond becomes crucial. What is the scope for developing age-friendly cities to take account of these issues? Some questions to be considered in the debate will include:

Cities are viewed as key drivers for economic success but can they integrate ageing populations as well? Can the resources of the city be used to improve quality of life in old age – just 1 in 20 households may have the money to take account of what cities such as Manchester have to offer? Can cities be designed in the interests of all age groups? What are the options for responding to different housing needs across the life course? How can older people be central to the regeneration of urban neighbourhoods? Can older and younger age groups work together to identify common needs and secure ‘rights to the city’ which work in the interests of all generations.

Our panellists will give us their perspectives on these issues on Tuesday. A short preview is given below.

Graeme Henderson, Research Fellow, IPPR North

If recovering from the financial crisis is the key fiscal policy challenge of this decade, an ageing population will be the biggest of the next decade, and the one after that. Too often population ageing is seen only as a burden on the economy but this plays down its potential benefits and the opportunities it will bring. Making work work better for older people who want to remain in the workforce for longer can help increase our country’s economic capacity in the same way that the influx of women into the workforce did in the post-war period. Adapting products and services, homes and even cities, to fit with the requirements and preferences of older citizens is opening up potential growth markets which we should be every bit as on focused on as emerging economies on the other side of the world.

Equally, older workers often have built up a vast amount of experience from working in the same or similar fields for many years. There is a justified perception that this expertise is not being properly utilised in workplaces and by society. A cultural shift is necessary to ensure that this accumulated knowledge is better understood and fully made use of.

While there is a moral case for developing age-friendly cities, we must not let take understate the economic case either.

Cities in the North of England already aspire to be at the frontier of embracing the silver economy. However, while they are home to several ground-breaking initiatives, these initiatives are largely isolated from wider economic strategies and have yet to deliver a breakthrough in turning around economic challenges. For example, the northern regions have the lowest levels of economic activity among older age men, while for women the three northern regions account for three of the lowest five performers amongst 50-59 year olds, and the three lowest among over 60s.

In most regions and cities, the response to ageing has been on the perceived costs of population change, its impact on service delivery, a focus on attracting a relatively declining cohort of younger workers and new sources of economic growth rather than considering the potential economic contribution of their growing ‘silver’ cohort. Ageism is sadly rife in our society and is perhaps the main obstacle standing in the way of a flourishing silver economy. There is also a perception that older workers extending their careers prevents young people finding jobs.

IPPR North’s new Silver Economies project will seek to address these challenges and look at how to better harness the economic potential of our maturing society.

Stefan White, Manchester School of Architecture

The role of urban research and design in making cities age-friendly: (con)testing the WHO design guidance in a Manchester Neighbourhood

We have just completed a participatory urban research and design project for of an age-friendly neighbourhood in ‘Old Moat’, Manchester, UK for Southway Housing Trust.

Our reflection on the Old Moat project is focussed on how the WHO age-friendly city programme and policies enable us to both understand (Research) and produce (Design) more inclusive urban environments. The key issues which have arisen in trying to come to know a particular neighbourhood of the city and then attempting to arrive at concrete proposals for making it more ‘Age-friendly’ are  how we decide to define and act in relation to  the three broad categories of ‘City’, ‘Neighbourhood’ and ‘Age-friendly’.

City

We have taken the view that the City should be understood as a  complex entity where physical and social issues and causes interact and interlock with one another: A multiplicity of networks at different spatial scales constituted through territorialised relations that stretch beyond its limits (Robinson 2005).  Urban research and design for a city of networks involves understanding and changing the relations between places, groups and services as well as the physical environments, organisations and provisions themselves.

Using the example of ‘Old Moat’ we argue that urban design should not be understood as limited to removing ‘unfriendly’ objects or surfaces but include stimulating both formal and informal enabling services, socialities and infrastructure networks.

E.g more benches are a common request heard in age-friendly research and a sensible proposition with regard to the average mobility of older people – however concerns over management and anti-social behaviour often prevent them from being installed or are the reason for their removal. How can we design a neighbourhood with more benches?

Neighbourhood

We have approached the concept of Neighbourhood as comprising both the community and the space in which it is practiced (DeCertau, Petrescu). This means it is not just a space on a map but made what it is by the people who live there. This approach asks that we address the political engagement or involvement of a community in parallel with any environmental ‘improvements’.

In this context we have found that the design of age-friendly cities presents immediate challenges in terms of both negotiating  and understanding territorial relationships between specific neighbourhoods and the general resources of ‘City’.

We argue that age-friendly urban research and design must facilitate community-led negotiation of interventions within both a neighbourhood and the wider city networks to which it relates.  E.g making an area especially suited for Older people may have the effect of reducing the provision elsewhere, how can we design an ‘Age-friendly’ neighbourhood in an ‘Age-friendly’ city?

Age-friendly

Following these relational definitions of city and the neighbours who both ‘inhabit’ and create it, we contest that while ‘Age-friendliness’ (as defined in the eight interlocking World Health Organisation ‘domains’) presents a social model for the understanding  (research) of the impact of the city on older people – and promotes participation as part of this –  it currently limits its definition of the role of design to a medical model (Hanson 2007).  This either assumes that the relations between ‘Citizens’ are not what, in fact, makes ‘the City’ liveable or friendly – or that design can have no role in changing these things.

We argue instead that  making a city more age-friendly is a participatory process of research and design for the development of  urban environmental proposals which should negotiate:  both physical and social  aspects of territory; within each specific neighbourhood;  across a range of scales and time frames of the city.

Paul McGarry, Senior Strategy Manager, Valuing Older People Team, Manchester City Council

Ageing in cities, and specifically in disadvantaged urban areas, involves risks that can lead to ill health and poor quality of life.   Accordingly, the primary focus of age-friendly programmes has been on older people and ageing.

In the age of austerity the argument for all-age improvement social programmes is persuasive and intuitively ‘right’.  However there is evidence that without a specific focus on older people, especially in cities, the policy and delivery drivers that can create ‘good places to grow old’ are often overlooked.

The emerging debates, policy focus and city-based programmes concerned with age-friendly cities reflect a number of key demographic, economic and policy drivers.

The first of these is the compelling demographic driver.  As the Dublin Declaration, signed by 42 municipalities in September 2011, argues,

“In a world in which life expectancy is increasing at the rate of over two years per decade, and the percentage of the population over 65 years is projected to double over the next forty years, the need to prepare for these changes is both urgent and timely.”

So by 2030 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities, whilst one-quarter of urban populations in high income countries will be aged sixty and over.  And by 2050 one-quarter of urban populations in less developed countries will be aged sixty and over. (Phillipson 2010)

These are well known and well-worn facts that we often tire of hearing, but they signal profound social and economic changes which will create new types of communities, not just in the relatively rich north, but also across the BRIC countries and beyond.

We know that ageing in cities, and specifically in disadvantaged urban areas, involved risks that can lead to ill health and poor quality of life.   Health inequalities affecting such areas are well documented and extremely persistent.  And as Gierveld and Scharf (2008) argue,

“There is emerging evidence that urban environments may place older people as heightened risk of isolation and loneliness.”

The position of older people in cities, at least in a UK context, is described by an Audit Commission (2008) report in these terms:

“Some Councils will see an outward migration of affluent people in their 50 and 60s…the remaining older population …tends to be…poorer, isolated and more vulnerable with a lower life expectancy and a need for acute interventions.”

Unfortunately, for most part the dominant narratives of ageing have concerned pension and health and care service reform.  I will leave aside for now the content of these narratives, but insofar as ageing is discussed in political and social discourse it is at this level.  There is also an important subplot developing in this story.  That of generational competition and the notion of the baby boomer generation having accumulated wealth (and power) for itself at the expense of the generations following it.  The impact of these narratives is all too often to prevent public policy moving beyond first base.

 

In response to these challenges the World Health Organisation age-friendly environments programme was launched in the mid 2000s and resulted 33 cities collaborating on the production of a good practice guide.  The WHO guide is based on eight ‘domains’ which include social and civic participation, the built environment, transport, housing and so on.  (WHO 2007)

In 2010 a Global Network of age-friendly cities was declared, bringing together around a dozen partners – including Manchester – signed up to ambitious plans.   138 cities have now signed up to the WHO network.

A criticism of the focus on older people in mainstream age-friendly programmes is that they either represent a missed opportunity to improving cities for all age groups and/or that they exclude young people or potentially create generational fractures.  In my experience this is an imagined risk.  And at a delivery level it is commonplace in age-friendly programmes that intergenerational approaches such as Manchester’s ‘Generations Together’ initiative, figure highly.  More widely, in a UK context there is little to suggest that the ageing agenda crowds out those aimed at younger generations.

The implications of the age-friendly approach that I’ve outlined suggest a broad range of national and local actions.  Partners should:

  • Work within the framework of  the WHO Global Network of Age-Friendly cities and promote the Dublin Declaration on age-friendly cities and environments;
  • Respond to local needs, desires, inequalities and the specific challenges of growing older in each area with a holistic approach to cover the range of services, opportunities and neighbourhood needs important to residents, including healthy ageing in mid-later life;
  • Include cross-generational approaches in age-friendly programmes;
  • Adopt inclusive approaches that are flexible to the strengths of local communities, voluntary organisations and frontline staff;
  • Shift the focus of support services towards earlier interventions, ill-health prevention, whole populations and multi-faceted initiatives;
  • Learn from academic and expert partners and independent scrutiny and evaluation; and
  • Maintain a citizenship perspective on engagement to create communities of interest with older people in the lead.

CONCLUSION

The demographic, economic and policy drivers outlined above demand a linked up, programmatic response at international, national and local levels.  So for now at least, the international movement which aims to create age-friendly cities and communities should be encouraged to flourish.

It is being realistic to acknowledge that, in particular, in the western economies, the cold economic climate presents us with significant policy and delivery challenges in respect of disadvantaged urban populations.   In this context the specific and growing needs (and assets) of the urban old requires a distinctive voice, of which the age-friendly movement is an inspiring example.

References

Audit Commission (2008) Don’t Stop Me Now: preparing for an ageing population” Audit Commission, London

McGarry P and Morris J (2011) A Great Place to Grow Older: A case study of how Manchester is developing an age-friendly city.  Working with Older People Volume 15 issues 1, Pier Press.

Phillipson C (2010) Growing Old in Urban Environments: Development of Age-friendly Communities, in the SAGE Handbook of Social Gerontology edited by Dannefer D and

Phillipson C, Sage publications.

Scharf T and Gierveld J (2008) Loneliness in Urban Neighbourhoods: An Anglo-Dutch Comparison, European Journal of Ageing, 5, 103-115.

World Health Organisation (2007) Global Age-friendly Cities: A Guide, World Health Organisation Geneva  http://www.who.int/ageing/publications

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