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Towards an age-friendly world

There are many ways to improve old age and make it a comfortable period of life, but hardly anything would be possible to achieve without an age-friendly environment. The problem of redesigning urban areas to make them accessible is one of the top challenges cities face today. It is difficult because the world wasn’t build yesterday and redesigning is always more problematic than designing. Although trends in population ageing have led to a lot of effort being invested in solving this issue, the issue is an old one. The accessibility of urban spaces is important not only for older people but also, for children, for people with disabilities, and just for people who are not feeling well and not ready to go up hundreds of steps or to drive two hours to experience some fresh air. I will leave the question ‘why has so little been done before’ unanswered and say more about what is happening now.

There are many factors that should be considered and the challenges that cities are facing can vary. A recent analysis by the OECD distinguishes three types of cities according to the nature of the challenge posed by population ageing:

1. Ageing cities + slow population growth;

2. Young cities + rapidly ageing area;

3. Young cities + slowly ageing area.

Within this typology urban planners can develop and implement a range of different strategies, though they share a common purpose - to make urban spaces as accessible as they ideally can be. For cities to be truly age-friendly, the idea of accessibility should apply not only to the more obviously relevant forms of physical infrastructure such as public transport, but to all aspects of the built environment that can be transformed to help older people to be involved in society. The OECD ‘Ageing in cities’ report outlines 6 strategies for building an age friendly area: long-term vision, developing indicators to measure ‘ageing societies’, promoting health, increasing older people’s engagement in labour market and social activities, affordable living in accessible environments, redesigning the urban area to increase attractiveness and wellbeing.

Today almost every European city has a plan to improve age friendliness by 2020, and many of them are very ambitious (Berlin is aiming for 100% accessibility). The European Commission’s City Award gives a prestige recognition every year to a city for what it has achieved in this domain. The biggest problem is to turn segregation into integration. There has been too much of a tendency to go for the ‘low-hanging fruit’ – concentrate on making comfortable places for older people in rural areas or smaller cities, for the obvious reason that it is much more difficult to make megacities age friendly. This is especially true in developing countries where often the best health and care services are located in big cities. I’ve just come back from Moscow which has a population of about 12 million people. It’s the most populous city in Russia, and the richest one. Living there gives older people a big advantage of having a better range of services given how undeveloped much of this enormous country is. However, it’s not easy simply because getting from places to places is a massive challenge. Even though public transport is reported as reliable, there are very few elevators in the metro, and it’s hard to redesign since the Moscow metro is very deep and relatively old. Heavy traffic is a huge issue, especially when it concerns an emergency care. However, Moscow is moving towards age friendliness and developing rapidly.

What are examples of good practice? It’s impossible not to start with Japan where in 2014 Yokohama city launched ‘Walking Point Program’ that encouraged its citizens have daily walks. The results are impressive: more than 100 thousand people now participate in this program. Participants can watch their number of steps online or they can get the data on their mobile phones. There are even special reader devices for counting steps available in shops in their neighborhood. For every individual who walks more than 100 thousand steps in a month, Yokohama city donates 200 thousand yen to UN World Food Program. Another interesting example from Japan comes from Toyama city, which has organized an agricultural training in order to slow down the decline of farm workers. The city now supports older people to start their own agricultural production.

Lisbon has two universities that offer free classes to older people that do not depend on their previous level of education. The Senior University and the Technical University of Lisbon are open to anyone over the age of 50.

Helsinki, which is well-known as a smart city, launched the DAA project for a customer-oriented, home-based care service network for elderly in one of the neighborhoods - Lauttasaari. The system is flexible and adapted through personal budgeting.

One of my favorite examples is multi-generation housing. This practice is becoming more and more popular. Cologne developed the program ‘Living for Help’ that brings students and older people together. The benefit for students is free housing, for older people it is inclusivity and  daily assistance. Similar projects can be found in the U.S, Japan, Finland, Netherlands, Belgium, and Singapore.

Manchester has developed a city-wide Locality Program that brings all relevant local actors to co-ordinate services and create new ones for improvement older people’s wellbeing. Manchester has also launched the Age-friendly Culture Program that unites 20 arts and heritage organizations to work together on promoting older people’s involvement in culture production and planning. The city is now promoting itself as a ‘great place to become old’.

This is a very small selection from a very large number of promising developments and let’s not forget that there are already very good age-friendly cities, such as Vienna, Melbourne, Vancouver,  Auckland etc. 

Laurent Kronental ‘Souvenir d’un Futur’

About the Author:

Daria Belostotckaia is a James Martin Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and a PhD candidate in Vienna University, the faculty of psychology.

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