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

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.