How can we build ‘age-friendly’ cities?

An elderly man in South Shields, 2012. Image: Getty.

The impact of population ageing on the economy and health care is much discussed, but where older people live is also important. Mostly, this will be in cities, with 25 per cent of their populations likely to be over 60 by 2030. This raises urgent questions about how cities adapt to ageing populations, and how the resources of cities be harnessed to improve the lives of older people.

One response has been the move – led by the World Health Organization – to create ‘age-friendly’ cities, with the development of the Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. Launched in 2010, the Network has grown from a handful of members to one covering over 500 cities and communities across the world. Some of the key actions arising from this have included challenging stereotypes of older people; re-designing and improving access to outdoor spaces; strengthening support networks within neighbourhoods; and campaigns tackling social isolation and loneliness.

But the barriers to age-friendly work are increasingly apparent. Age-friendly initiatives have run parallel with the impact of economic austerity. Many cities in the network have faced reductions in services supporting older people, including the closure of senior centres and libraries and the rationing of home-based care. This has been highly detrimental to older people, who spend around 80 per cent of their time at home or in their immediate neighbourhood.

The debate around age-friendly cities has created an important agenda for re-thinking the way in which we manage our urban environments. Do older people have a ‘right’ to a share of urban space? Is the idea of ‘age-friendly’ caring communities compatible with modern urbanisation?

Such questions suggest major issues for the age-friendly movement, in particular whether the idea of ‘age-friendliness’ will progress mainly as a form of ‘branding’ for cities concerned with improving their status.
Alternatively, will the movement begin to engage with the serious problems facing cities – notably widening inequality, the impact of climate change, problems of homelessness, and the lack of affordable housing? These have the potential to undermine interventions aimed at improving the lives of older people. They will need a stronger response than presently exists from those involved in age-friendly work.

Our book Age-Friendly Cities and Communities: A Global Perspective offers a ‘Manifesto for Change’ for the age-friendly movement, built around four key themes: challenging social inequality, building new urban partnerships, developing neighbourhood support and co-researching age-friendly communities.

The first area for development concerns grounding age-friendly work in policies which challenge social inequality.  A key task must be addressing gender, social class, ethnic and other inequalities affecting the older population.


In the Global North, the age-friendly brand has been adopted in various guises in many (mainly) white communities, but is much less evident amongst black and minority ethnic groups. However, it is precisely the latter that experience the most disadvantaged and least age-friendly communities. It will be difficult to take age-friendly policies seriously unless there is closer engagement with those neighbourhoods and groups of older people abandoned in the face of urban change.

Acknowledging social and ethnic diversity is thus an important issue for the age-friendly movement to address. The implications are wide-ranging, including responding to different cultural interpretations of what ‘age-friendliness’ might mean; shaping policies around the needs of particular groups with contrasting migration histories and life course experiences; recognising distinctive forms of inequality experienced by particular ethnic groups (notably in areas such as health, income, and housing); and understanding the impact of racism on communities and the challenge this presents.

The second issue concerns building collaborations with the range of movements campaigning to improve urban environments. The growth of age-friendly work has been led (e.g. in the UK) mainly by departments within local government. In other countries (e.g. the USA), non-governmental organisations have been more influential.

Although these different approaches have contributed to a significant expansion in projects, the range of partnerships with non-age-related organisations has been limited, especially those, for example, leading urban regeneration schemes, developers, and the business sector more generally.
Encouraging links between different urban programmes and partners could help to expand the range and quality of age-friendly interventions. For example, ideas from the ‘smart’ and ‘sustainable’ cities movement around developing alternatives to cars in cities, increasing energy efficiency, and reducing pollution, should also be viewed as central to making cities more ‘age-friendly’. Engagement with this type of work has the potential to produce both further resources for the movement as well as adding to the sustainability of existing projects.

Third, attention must be given to devising interventions at a neighbourhood level, given the policy emphasis on community-based care. Some organisational developments which have emerged outside the age-friendly movement merit attention – notably, the Village model and Naturally-Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCS) in the USA.

Villages are membership-based associations, created and managed by older people, which provide supportive services and social activities. NORCS represent partnerships between statutory and voluntary bodies to enhance services for older people living in geographically defined areas with relatively high densities of older adults. Both approaches stress the advantages of older people working together to solve many of the issues they face individually – whether accessing reliable home repair services, organising food co-operatives, helping with technology or getting financial advice.

Fourth, promoting the participation of older people has been a key theme in the development of the age-friendly movement. Various approaches have been adopted to assess the ‘age-friendliness’ of communities, ranging from consulting older residents (distributing surveys, conducting focus groups) to involving them in photo-voice activities, working groups or steering committees.

Whilst such approaches encourage older people’s input, they have been less successful in making older people central to the development of age-friendly activity. ‘Co-research’ has been presented as a way forward in this regard – that is, research conducted ‘with’ or ‘by’ older adults rather than ‘to’, ‘about’ or ‘for’ them as research subjects.

This approach provides an opportunity for older people to take a leading role in research, and contribute to the process of social change in various ways. Co-research could become an important tool for involving older people directly in the process of urban development, as well as in developing new approaches to supporting people within the community.

Finally, to what extent can the challenge of population ageing and urbanisation be used to resolve some of the major issues facing society? Age-friendly initiatives could drive forward new ideas relating to improving urban environments (e.g. highlighting the impact of pollution); developing new forms of community organisation and solidarity (e.g. food and energy co-operatives); supporting inter-generational cohesion (e.g. older people working with younger people in schools and other organisations).

The argument of is that doing ‘age-friendly’ work also means recognising and challenging the wider inequalities and injustices which affect city life. Standing apart from these will inevitably weaken both the age-friendly movement and many other campaigns for improving the lives of all of those living in cities.

Christopher Phillipson is a professor of sociology & social gerontology at the University of Manchester.

Age-Friendly Cities and Communities: A Global Perspective is edited by Tine BuffelSophie Handler and Chris Phillipson and published by Bristol: Policy Press

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.