Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

According to the United Nations, the number of people aged 65 or over is projected to reach 2.1-billion by 2050, more than double today’s numbers.Geber86/Getty Images

In 1997, Paul McGarry wrote his first action plan to improve the lives of older people. The award-winning head of the Greater Manchester (Britain) Ageing Hub crafted a vision for urban planning that accounts for all ages, bringing together stakeholders from civil society, government, social work and more.

He’d go on to help Greater Manchester – where, in 2015, approximately 33 per cent of the population was over 50 – become an age-friendly region, the first in Britain to join a global network of them.

Mr. McGarry was in his 30s when he wrote his first age-friendly city design plan. He’s almost 60 now, and he’s still talking about the same issues: social isolation, transport and housing, issues that are gaining prominence in his field as the global elderly population grows.

“Aging isn’t going anywhere,” he says, noting that investing in age-friendly urban design can reduce the need for high-cost health and care services later on. “We need leadership, including older people’s leadership, to connect the quality of life and the health care-social services savings agenda.”

Today, Mr. McGarry is one of a growing number of urban planners grappling with the question of how to serve a population that’s aging worldwide. According to the United Nations, the number of people aged 65 or over is projected to reach 2.1 billion by 2050, more than double today’s numbers. What’s more, the population of older people living in cities increased by 68 per cent between 2000 and 2015. That trend shows no signs of abating – and has the potential to transform the way our cities operate and how people live, travel and socialize.

This presents policy questions for municipalities, which must figure out how much to invest in planning while providing for and averting unnecessary costs from health care, emergency-room visits, social services for the elderly, and the like.

The trick, Mr. McGarry says, is providing supportive environments for aging populations “without pathologizing them.”

Manchester deemed its aging population “valuable, not vulnerable” in a recent campaign celebrating the contribution of older adults in the coronavirus pandemic response. In the wake of COVID-19, elderly residents took paid front-line roles, provided support to family and neighbours and offered community engagement in a time of crisis.

But this doesn’t mean the municipality ignores the reality of health-related issues for its aging population.

“We’ve got compelling international evidence and guidance on the devastating effects of falls, for example, but the uptake [on implementation] is patchy,” Mr. McGarry says. “The challenges are in what we do right now, and connecting those actions to medium- and long-term changes.”

Making a city age-friendly involves more than implementing a falls-prevention program – though Manchester has one, along with programs for creating age-friendly homes, creative care kits for isolated citizens, and Talking About My Generation, a radio news program run by older volunteers. Systematically improving intersections by adding longer crossing times, shorter crossing distances and sloped entrances for street access are important, but not everything. High-quality housing, social networks that improve health and well-being, and a vibrant cultural life are also key components of an age-friendly city.

University of Toronto Scarborough human geography professor Andre Sorensen researches urbanization and development issues in Canada and Japan, including the importance of active transportation such as walking and cycling. Cities shouldn’t be automobile-dependent, he says, and need a mix of housing types so residents can downsize easily in their own neighbourhoods, keeping their routines, networks of friends and destinations.

High-density development brings residents of all ages together, Prof. Sorensen says – and saves cities infrastructure and maintenance costs along the way. “If you have six houses on a one-kilometre stretch of road, covering all the long-run supply and maintenance costs will be a lot higher per house than if you have 60 houses on that stretch of road,” he says.

The city of Toyama, Japan, is one example of a city that has taken a high-density planning approach, bringing older residents together in Residential Encouragement Zones (REZs), where public facilities, frequent and accessible transport, intergenerational activities and housing design meet their needs. Toyama’s Compact City Strategy was developed in 2002, subsidizing those who moved into and built REZs, which had the effect of creating revived neighbourhoods with sparkling cultural centres.

Moving citizens into Toyama-style zones is a classic strategy, Prof. Sorensen says. “Property taxes in low-density areas don’t raise enough money to supply and maintain local infrastructure like water systems, public transportation, or ambulance and fire services,” he indicates. “Toyama recognized the high cost of low-density development and made an economic analysis and policy in response.”

“Planning for an aging society is not just where people live,” says assistant professor Jordana Maisel, director of research at the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA) at the University at Buffalo. Rather, planners thinking about accessibility should consider all elements of a city that residents interact with – shops, community hubs and the like.

“There’s a trend to build age-friendly housing or assisted living facilities in the middle of nowhere, disconnected from social supports and activities,” Dr. Maisel says. “Social participation is a critical component of our interpretation of inclusive design.”

Founded in the mid-1980s, Dr. Maisel’s IDEA Center is focused on inclusive, evidence-based, built environment design. Among the centre’s projects is a new certification and resource program called isUD: Innovative Solutions for Universal Design, for buildings that go above and beyond minimal code compliance for accessibility. Similar to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification doled out for green buildings in the U.S., isUD awards museums, stores and offices based on their adherence to eight principles, such as wellness, comprehensibility and cultural appropriateness.

Making a space accessible involves more than just mobility impairments, such as focusing on wheelchair users, Dr. Maisel says. “Inclusive and universal design thinks of a broader population, including individuals with vision and hearing impairments, as well as the more frail.”

Wider hallways and doorways to accommodate modern wheelchairs – which have changed considerably in the half-century since the original accessibility standards research was done – are only part of inclusive design, Dr. Maisel says. Wayfinding, acoustics, lighting and limited steps are also considerations. To be truly inclusive, consultations with end-users are an essential element of the design process, whether referring to buildings or programming.

“We’re not just thinking about addressing issues for an aging population,” Dr. Maisel says. “We’re focused on good design. If you think about the most vulnerable, it’s those with disabilities and older adults. By addressing the needs of those populations, you provide a better solution for all.”

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe