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Making urban spaces work better for Older people

More than half of the world’s population live in cities, with this proportion set to rise to two-thirds by 2050. A significant and growing number of the world’s urban residents are older people – more than 500 million.

Research indicates that for older people, cities present physical, social and economic barriers that prevent them realizing their right to live in dignity and safety. Initiatives like the World Health Organization’s Age-friendly Cities and Communities model have led to improvements in a number of cities. If you want to read more about this click here.

While physical accessibility is absolutely essential, what makes shared urban spaces and streets truly inclusive and liveable? What is the relationship between our health in older age and the physical, social and economic urban environment? What makes older people living in cities safe in a disaster and less vulnerable to crime? How does this affect their daily lives or the assistance they receive in times of crisis?

Ensuring that no one is left behind requires more than listing older people as another vulnerable group; it requires the meaningful involvement of older people in data collection, decision making, design and implementation. Data collection must include people of all ages and move beyond solely income-based indicators of wellbeing to reflect the realities of living in a city. Prioritising investment in urban services and infrastructure is vital but it must take into account the views and experiences of older people

How do cities discriminate against older people?

Everyone has a right to belong in a city, no matter their age. Often cities fail to protect and promote the rights of older citizens. This discrimination can be divided under three headings: Social, Economic and Spatial.

  • Social: Negative ageist stereotypes and a lack of understanding of the diversity of older age keeps older people on the margins of in city life, decision making, and community activities as we age.
  • Economic: Urban life is expensive and discriminates against older men and women. Those living on a low income or working in the informal sector are restricted in their ability to live comfortably and depend on a secure income.
  • Spatial: Inaccessible spaces and services, inappropriate housing, hostile streets, poor public transportation, the risk of humanitarian disasters, and increasing political instability all limit the enjoyment of rights in older age.

What problems do older people face in cities?

As people grow older in urban environments, their needs change and cities must adapt to accommodate them.

  • Pollution: Poor air quality affects people of all ages, and is linked to over seven million deaths each year, but it disproportionally impacts older people. Air pollution causes chronic respiratory conditions, heart disease and stroke, which can all lead to premature death.
  • Dementia: With people living longer in cities, the prevalence of dementia in urban areas is growing and predicted to double every 20 years, particularly in low and middle income countries.
  • Non-communicable diseases: Three in every four people who live with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are aged over 60. Two-thirds live in urban environments that discourage physical activity, encourage bad diets and lack green spaces.

What should be done?

  • Create inclusive and enjoyable shared urban spaces that encourage social activity and provide easier access to services and opportunities for all by reducing car use and traffic speeds, promoting walking and cycling, developing dense, mixed-use communities, and supporting those engaged in street-based livelihood activities. This also includes providing green and public spaces that encourage physical activity and social interaction, and increasing public transport provision that is adequate, accessible, safe and accountable.
  • Promote healthy ageing and tackle the key risk factors linked with urban living by tackling the high rates of non-communicable diseases in cities
    through awareness raising and encouraging physical activity and healthy eating, reducing air pollution from all sources, and creating communities that support people with dementia.
  • Help older urban residents feel safe and secure living in a city by involving older people in disaster preparedness planning, promoting better coordination between humanitarian actors and city authorities to ensure the specific needs of older people are met in times of emergency, and recognising the specific challenges facing displaced older people. Also, cities should consider crime, personal safety and security in planning and policy decisions, particularly in streets and shared spaces and on public transport

Read the full report on which this article is based on: Ageing and the city: making urban spaces work for older people

About Eve Williams

Eve Williams
Eve Williams is the Production and Social Media Administrator for Eldernet. She is currently studying towards her Masters at the University of Canterbury. She has a passion for learning new things.

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