Samuel Cole, 85, of Los Angeles, poses in his motorhome. Cole moved into the vehicle when he wasn't able to afford a $100 rise in his rent.
Samuel Cole, 85, of Los Angeles, poses in his motorhome. Cole moved into the vehicle when he wasn't able to afford a $100 rise in his rent. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

University of Manchester researchers argue that the movement to make cities more livable for older residents must expand its work on inequality.

In Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, as NPR recently reported, a group of older people gathers weekly for political discussions over breakfast. The get-together, along with regular outings to museums, plays, and even to other cities, is offered through the neighborhood’s “village”—a nonprofit membership organization formed in 2002 designed to assist residents who wish to remain in their homes as they age. Members pay several hundred dollars a year in dues, which cover an office and small staff who organize the social events but also aid with necessities such as hiring home health care workers, helping with grocery shopping, and securing transport to medical appointments.

Today, more than 200 such virtual villages have been established in towns and cities across the U.S.—a sign of Americans’ ardent desire to “age in place,” or stay in their homes or communities as they grow older, and the advances made in giving them options to do so. But the village movement, as it’s known, also illustrates how such advances have largely benefited those on the wealthier and whiter end of the spectrum—Beacon Hill, for instance, is known for its affluence—despite recent efforts to provide similar services, sans dues, to lower-income neighborhoods.

Researchers at the University of Manchester in the U.K. are shedding some light on the equity issues underlying global aging. In their new book Age-friendly Cities and Communities: A Global Perspective, Tine Buffel, Sophie Handler, and Chris Phillipson penned a “manifesto for change” that calls for a major expansion of what’s known as the age-friendly cities movement, so more older adults can have a better quality of life—particularly those with fewer means and poorer health.

This movement has grown significantly over the past two decades, especially since the World Health Organization established the Global Network for Age-friendly Cities and Communities in 2010. As of 2017, over 500 cities had signed on, from Amsterdam to Zushi City, Japan, pledging to institute policies that make their communities better places to grow older. In the United States, the age advocacy group AARP has worked as a WHO partner to secure 207 such communities.

An elderly man cycles in Osaka, Japan. (Thomas White/Reuters)

“There was a realization that the world’s population is aging at the same time as urbanization is occurring,” said co-author Phillipson. WHO projects that the share of the global population aged 60 and older will be nearing a quarter by 2050, up from 12 percent today, and by 2030 three out of every five people will live in an urban area, up from a little over one in two today.

The cities and communities in the network have undertaken projects to accommodate the needs of their older residents—redesigning green spaces, offering trainings on how to use public transport, and pushing for more housing stock with so-called universal design features that make it easier to age in place, such as single-floor homes and apartments outfitted with wider halls and doorways that can accommodate a wheelchair. In Macon, Georgia, for instance, the city refurbished Tattnall Square Park, located across the street from a senior center, with ADA compliant gateways, wider sidewalks, and new benches.

But while much work has been accomplished, there’s much more to do: hence the manifesto, which focuses in large part on inequality. Attempts to build age-friendly communities, whether aging-in-place villages established in affluent urban areas or purpose-built planned developments, have largely benefited high-income households, said Phillipson—leaving out the very communities most in need of infrastructural improvements. “And inequalities often grow worse as we age,” he said. “It’s hard to be an older person if you’ve had a lifelong experience of poverty.”

Much of the age-friendly movement’s work has also been geared toward healthier residents, Phillipson said, and more attention must be paid to those with both cognitive and physical disabilities. “The movement needs to address how it can be more socially inclusive,” he said.   

Such inclusivity also means pushing for a narrative that doesn’t single out older people as the only group in need of urban redesign. “This implies that once you get to 60 you have needs that are different than everyone else, and that’s not the case,” said Phillipson. For example, as CityLab recently reported, young children living in cities face many of the same issues as older residents, namely a dependence on their immediate locality due to a more limited range of movement. The quality of home and neighborhood becomes even more important for these urbanites: “Studies show that a safe neighborhood with green spaces, well-maintained sidewalks, and the like encourage children, the elderly, and everyone in between to go out and exercise and socialize—and that has real health benefits,” said Phillipson.

How can communities work to address the inequities Phillipson and his colleagues point to? For these researchers, getting older residents involved in urban design is key. This “co-production of the city,” as they call it, goes beyond asking the elderly about their needs and wants to training older people to do research themselves—and then including them in decision-making processes.

For instance, Tine Buffel trained 123 older Manchester residents to conduct interviews with their harder-to-reach counterparts—those who live in social isolation and/or poverty, and those with very limited mobility—to find out what their needs are. These “co-researchers” then worked with the university and local authorities to fill the needs they documented, such as by forming social groups for older people in lower-income neighborhoods to fight isolation.

Expanding the age-friendly cities and communities movement so that it works to improve the lives of all faces two major obstacles: isolation of the movement, and a lack of funding in an age of austerity. Both, said Phillipson, can be addressed through collaboration with groups working for equality, community empowerment, and spatial justice, such as AARP and the Toronto-based NGO The International Federation on Ageing, along with academic institutions and broader campaigns working toward improving cities for the less well-off.

“We need to bring the age-friendly debate into discussions about urban equality and how to influence those who develop cities,” said Phillipson. “This will greatly strengthen all sides.”

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