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

 
 
 
 

A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.