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

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.