The secrets of “age-friendly” cities

As you know, people are living for longer these days, and by that we men living. We’re younger at heart, heath and attitude than ever before and it’s about time our cities reflect this exciting demographic shift.

Soon there will be as many older people  living in Australia as children. And when you think of all the efforts to include families in society, the facilities, the playgrounds, the safety measures, it makes sense that councils and governments start thinking about the next demographic shift and and how to include those at the other end of life’s journey, too.

In 2006, the World Health Organisation worked with 33 cities around the world to learn more about what makes a city a great place in which to grow old. The cities varied in size and the initiative involved older people at every stage. After a year, the WHO released a guide designed to help governments embrace and plan for the burgeoning older population.

So what makes an age-friendly city? At the core, it is facilities, design and governance that allow older people to continue making a contribution to their community and families.

It’s paying attention to smaller details like having large lettering on signs, plenty of pedestrian crossings and wide pavements, pleasant public spaces to enjoy and good lighting at night to ensure safety of all people.

It’s a case of having good roads and reliable public transport so older people can get around, plus quality, affordable housing close to services where they can live. There are quality healthcare facilities in central locations, including plenty of quality residential aged-care, plus excellent communications strategies that reach residents of all ages.

An age-friendly city is one with a vibrant community. There are plenty of venues and events, free activities and places for people to gather. There is also a wide range of flexible employment and volunteer options, including support for seniorpreneurs to be self-employed.

Finally, an age-friendly city is one in which older people are respected. The WHO includes these points in its checklist for social inclusion:

  • Older people are regularly consulted on how they can be served better.
  • Customer service staff are trained to be courteous and helpful.
  • Older people are depicted in the media without stereotyping.
  • Community events are accessible to the older population and are specifically included in “family” activities.
  • Schools provide opportunities to learn about ageing and interact with the older population.

Ruth Finkelstein, associate director at the Robert N Butler Columbia Ageing Centre, directed the Age-friendly New York City initiative, which won the 2013 award for “The Best Existing Age-Friendly Initiative in the World” from the International Federation on Ageing.

She says the idea of Age-Friendly cities is “to look through the lens of ageing when we plan, build and design cities.”

Western Europe, in particular Spain, Italy and Germany, plus Scandinavian countries and Japan are leading the charge.

“For example a number of Spanish cities, including Madrid and Valencia, have developed comprehensive city-planning strategies that ensure design works for people of all ages and levels of ability (including both the able bodied and the disabled). Putting age-friendly design at the heart of city planning means that these cities won’t have to go through the costly process of retro-fitting and modifying existing facilities,” says Ms Finkelstein.

She goes on to say that it’s not just up to councils to mastermind these changes.

“Political will is another major issue. This has to do with how society views older adults, and the stereotypes that prevent us from seeing the value that age-friendly planning can have towards the whole community. An active elderly population can expand a city’s workforce and benefit the local economy: giving elderly people an adequate access to shops and amenities, for example, can add to the vibrancy of an area.

“Changing our thinking now can enable us all to extend our active lives in the community.”

Does the idea of an age-friendly city seem plausible to you? How does your nearest city compare and what could be improved on to bring it closer to the ideal? 


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