A shared city will include seniors
The world’s population is aging dramatically. In 2017 there were an estimated 962 million people aged 60 or over, comprising 13% of the global population. By 2030, that number is expected to rise to 1.4 billion. Due to rapid urbanization many of the world’s seniors will now live their entire lives in urban environments, a major demographic shift that necessitates reshaping a built environment originally designed to cater to the young and able-bodied.
Making urban environments more inclusive is always a challenge, whether you’re a planner looking to improve mobility for people with low incomes or a designer seeking to enhance access for people with disabilities. But adapting our cities for aging populations presents unique challenges because the senior demographic is intersectional.
Pallavi Mantha from Arup’s sustainability team and Michael Amabile and Greyson Clark from our integrated planning team recently participated in a discussion on the challenges and opportunities that come with designing for aging communities.
This is a major demographic transformation that hasn’t been discussed much until recently. Has Arup been tracking this trend for a long time? When did you start thinking about the implications of aging on the work you do?
Michael: Arup, specifically our UK and Milan offices, has been involved in projects globally for some time that have helped bring attention to the issue.
What drove me to think about aging was personal experience. My father was ill and having trouble navigating around the house. As a planner, I couldn’t help looking at my parents, and seeing the issues surrounding two senior adults living in a suburban house way too big for them. I started wondering how you extricate a person from the physical surrounding that no longer works for them while not totally disrupting their lifestyle, and what financial and societal and cultural factors are tied to that.
So, I asked our team what we do to design or plan for aging populations. Most people said, “It’s something we try to think about, but if it isn’t in the scope then sometimes it falls through the cracks.”
Are there any organizations leading the charge on awareness and making this issue a priority?
Greyson: In 2007, the World Health Organization established its now widely adopted framework for age-friendly planning, which identified eight domains everyone should consider when planning for seniors.
Michael: Many cities have had dedicated groups of professionals looking at aging for a while. Here in New York City, it’s the Department for the Aging. Most of their work has been focused on public health, but as people are living longer, healthier lives, the issues are changing. A lot of New Yorkers over 65 aren’t dealing exclusively with health issues, they’re expanding the population of active adults.
One of the popular stories you hear these days is about well-heeled empty nesters giving up their big house in the suburbs to move into the city so they can go to the theater and stuff. This is a big shift when you think about where most American cities were 25 or 30 years ago. Now cities are cool, which is great because cities can provide a lot of what older people need in terms of density and concentration of services.
So you’d say living in an urban environment is beneficial for older people?
Greyson: Cities provide benefits when it comes to autonomy and independence, especially in the US. It’s all about land use. Most American seniors aren’t urban dwelling: they’re more metro, suburban dwellers, which means they don’t have transit access, so they can’t get where they need to go — whether it’s the grocery store or the park or church — unless they drive.
Pallavi: Cities are great for seniors in many ways, but there are also challenges. In New York City, for example, we have an aging infrastructure that wasn’t built with seniors or children or parents with strollers in mind. Many features in the city aren’t wheelchair or walker accessible.
Then there’s affordability. The story of the well-heeled retiree moving to Manhattan is great, but that’s not available to everyone. There’s inequity in how well cities serve the aging population. In New York you’ll find pockets of mostly white people and pockets of mostly people of color and the benefits and amenities available to these groups can be vastly different.
For instance, there’s a lack of parks and green spaces in many neighborhoods where people of color live. Green spaces are important because they help offset the urban heat island effect. Without them, we encounter more extreme heat issues — and extreme heat is the most fatal of all the natural hazards, especially for seniors.
Are you aware of any city-level efforts to address this?
Pallavi: NYC’s Cool Neighborhoods Initiative outlines the issue and proposes interventions. Arup’s sustainability group worked with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the largest landlord in the city, to research how to protect their senior residents from the most dangerous effects of extreme heat. Right now, over 20% of NYCHA’s roughly 390,000 tenants are over 62 years old and those numbers are set to grow.
NYCHA wanted to come up with a strategy to help older residents stay in their own homes during extreme heat. We studied what combination of interventions would be required to keep temperatures at safe levels and, after looking at a variety of passive measures, we found that sheltering in place could only be done safely with the help of air-conditioning and backup power to ensure cooling isn’t compromised during power outages. NYCHA is now launching a smart air-conditioning pilot project at one of their senior buildings in Manhattan.
It’s fair to say that you can’t talk about “seniors” as a homogenous group anymore. Not only are the needs of the active 65-year-old very different from those of the ailing 93-year-old, but there’s real inequity when it comes to accessing the benefits a city has to offer. How do you address the challenge of planning or designing to meet such a broad range of needs?
Greyson: You need a broad view. In our “Cities Alive: Designing for aging communities” report, we looked for global best practice strategies in age-related design across four categories: security and resilience, health and well-being, autonomy and independence, and social connectedness.
Across those categories there are several urgent issues. Extreme heat is something we addressed in “Cities Alive.” Also, the affordability of cities, which goes beyond the needs of seniors and impacts a lot of people, but there are senior-specific interventions. There are many anti-displacement, affordable housing strategies that are well researched but not broadly implemented.
Are they not happening here in America or are they just not happening in general?
Greyson: It’s kind of mixed. Some cities are better than others and some countries do more than others.
For instance, we know that aging in place is a big issue that cuts across autonomy and independence, health and well-being, and social connectedness. But there are big challenges with affordability. Many people want to stay in their family homes, but the homes are big and too expensive to maintain, while others are simply priced out of their apartments.
The municipal public housing developer in Birmingham, UK, has a good program where bungalows are designed specifically to support aging in place. They’re two-story buildings, but all critical functions are located on the ground floor so if you lose the ability to go upstairs, you can continue to live there, and the second floor can be used as a caregiver’s space.
They built these to try to encourage older people who were living in nearby public housing that had grown too large for their needs to move, so that those units could be opened for families.
Michael: And, because these bungalows are close to where these people had been living, they address another need: connection. “Aging in place” is generally used to describe allowing people to stay in their homes, but it is about more than the physical aspects, there’s also a social cohesion element. Many people are less attached to their apartment than to their neighborhoods. They want to stay close to their synagogue or their doctor’s office. They want to stay close to their life.
Are there any countries that are real standouts in terms of the way they are dealing with age-related design?
Pallavi: In Japan, they are doing a lot of innovative things to allow people to age in place. They have entire elder villages and towns with a well-connected social fabric. There was a recent news story about one of these towns with a mobile doctor that visits regularly. Seniors can schedule check-ups and the doctor is familiar with each person’s health history. The service works not just to improve people’s health, but to support social cohesion. When the doctor comes it’s like a social event — everyone gathers.
Greyson: Kampung Admiralty in Singapore is another great example. They are creating a community within a development — there’s senior housing, rooftop terraces and gardens, a medical center, a South Asian food court, a supermarket, and childcare facilities. They also have interesting programs to promote intergenerational activities, such as asking parents who collect their kids from care to commit to bringing groceries to residents who can’t shop for themselves on the same trip. It’s a social service and a connectedness touchpoint.
There’s a trend toward this kind of development in the US, but it’s happening mainly for older people who can afford to buy into nice, new urbanist developments.
Pallavi: Yes, it’s not surprising that the first examples we see of this in the US are in wealthy neighborhoods. It’s the same fight we’ve been fighting forever. Part of the work to be done to make these solutions more broadly available is about policy-making, but another part is about reckoning with historical injustices.
What do you think we at Arup could be doing differently or better?
Greyson: We’re at a pivot point where the conversation about aging is trickling down from the public health and policy arena into our industry. I’d like to see Arup make an active difference and I think we’re well positioned to do it: we’re progressive designers. Our ethos is total design — it’s about being holistic in how we think about the built environment. That means creating more socially conscious designs and considering the full range of users.
Michael: The individuals at our firm care about this issue, I think. I want to look for concrete ways Arup can be more involved in cities, because cities are facing a big increase in their senior populations, which makes these issues even more pressing.
I think a good place to start is by looking at the work we’re already doing. Look at your project and ask yourself if there’s a way to make it more age friendly or generally more inclusive.