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Are urban environments best for an ageing population?

Are urban environments best for an ageing population?



A few weeks ago I gave a talk at the annual conference on Future Cities organised by the Department of Land Economy in Cambridge.  I was asked to offer some views on the implications of population ageing for urban development.  I was partnered in a session on demography by an economist who had used UK datasets to determine what attracted the best qualified young graduates to some cities and not others. Was it just the availability of well-paid jobs in the right sectors or the costs of housing or did it also have something to do with the attractions of the urban lifestyle on offer?  The focus in other words was migration, mainly internal migration.  The results persuasively pointed to the importance of non-financial factors, and served as a useful counterpoint to the question that I have used for the title of this blog.  Although the author of the Guardian article from which I borrowed the title is almost certainly right, the conventional wisdom is that if older people move house at all they tend to move out of cities. Or they do in England anyway.  Surely, for older people, internal migration means migration out of the city, or at least the city centres? 


No doubt it is easier and cheaper to provide various kinds of age-related services in densely populated rather than sparsely populated areas. Public transport networks are invariably better and certain amenities (shops, banks etc) are closer.  Despite all this, however, there does seem to be a marked preference among many older people for a lifestyle that our larger cities cannot (or do not) usually offer. This doesn’t necessarily mean life in the countryside of course, or in picture postcard villages. Market towns will do (after all, they have shops and banks), or the suburbs, or smaller urban centres on the fringe of cities. In other words, it looks as though a lot of older people prefer not to live in the kind of densely populated urban environments that should be ‘best for an ageing population’. The problem, as the author in the Guardian sees it, is that urban environments have not been ‘designed and adapted’ with their needs in mind (more benches, public lavatories, shared spaces etc).  Cities should be the best places in which to grow old, but as a matter of fact they aren’t (yet). My worry was that this might be only part of the story.  Surely design and adaption won’t fully compensate for the some of the disamenities of city life (crowded, dirty, noisy etc). Nor are they a substitute for what older people are looking for when they leave cities. Perhaps there is some truth in the idea that the appeal of busy cities (when they become very big and dominated by motorised transport) is distinctly age-related?  I have to emphasise that these are of course questions that prompted me to make a presentation on a topic outside my rather limited field of expertise rather than evidence-based conclusions. 

So does the evidence support my preconceptions?  Once of the first studies I found was a snapshot survey of older (65+) homeowners[1]. Most of these people wanted to stay put – and about 20% of them wanted (or planned) to move. Unfortunately the results contained no analysis of the various push-pull factors behind their preferences.  Nor do we know whether the people who said that weren’t planning to move had decided that they couldn’t afford it.  And we don’t see the non-financial trade-offs that might have influenced their decision. A close-knit neighbourhood (and 55% of older homeowners said their neighbourhood was indeed close-knit) could make up for some urban inconveniences or ugliness. What is important to note about this study, however, is the age group involved.  Older people are less to move than younger people, but for those who do move most of the moves are made in the years leading up to and around retirement.  We can guess that these are people with wealth (i.e. housing wealth), who are reasonably confident about their ability to sustain or overcome whatever social losses result a shift in place of residence.  We might also conjecture (and it is only a conjecture) that a lot of them move into areas that combine affluence with an agreeable semi-rural lifestyle.

LAs ranked by median age – top ten and bottom ten, 2011 Census

Consider, for example, the parts of the country that have the highest (and lowest) median age.  The youngest areas are young because they have a lot of young people moving into them (including students). No doubt the out-migration of young people (rural to urban) contributes to the high median age in the oldest areas, but it seems very unlikely – given the nature of these areas – that the in-migration of older people does not also play a part. These are places where older people (with wealth) want to live, and they are all rural or semi-rural. 

The picture, however, is rather more complicated than these data would suggest.  A Cambridge study using CFAS data identified the people in their sample who had moved in the last 10 years and had been at least 65 years old at the time of moving[2].  One-third of the sample had moved in the time period. This of course picks up a lot of movement that is likely to be driven by rather different motives than those who move at slightly younger ages. Health shocks and widowhood would no doubt feature largely in any comprehensive account of the motives for relocation. This particular paper, however, concentrates not on adverse life events, but socio-demographic factors and the direction of relocation (urban to rural or rural to urban)[3].  The key findings are that both area deprivation and rurality are positively associated with relocation. To be more precise, older people in rural areas are more likely to have relocated that people in urban areas, and that within urban areas, the people in the most deprived areas are more likely to have relocated than those in the leas deprived areas. It is reasonable to surmise that there are drawbacks to rural living that start to make themselves felt at older ages (when mobility starts to become more difficult?).  This is not to say, however, that some older people are moving back into city centres. Where they are relocating, this particular study does not tell us.

Kenneth Howse, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Institute of Population Ageing

[1] Older owners: housing outcomes and policy choices/ Strategic Society Centre, London 2015

[2] Relocating at older age: results from the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study/Yu-Tzu Wu at al. J Public Health 2015, vol 37:48-487.

[3] The authors admit that the “study was not able to identify voluntary and involuntary moves and the motivation for relocation”.

About the Author:

Kenneth Howse is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. He is also a key member of The Collen Programme on Fertility, Education and the Environment.

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