How can cities create neighborhoods that work well for all generations?

When he worked as the parks commissioner in Bogotá, Gil Penalosa helped trigger a quality of urban life revolution of sorts by promoting car-free Sundays – “ciclovias” -- on hundreds of kilometers of the streets around the Colombian capital. As this video shows, over 1.3 million residents each week would take to their bikes or participate in festivals and activities throughout Bogotá. In so doing, they boosted both their enjoyment of the city and their own fitness levels, thus creating a lively, low-emission sense of community for people from all walks of life, so to speak. 

In his current gig as the executive director of Toronto-based 8-80 Cities, Penalosa travels the world with a trenchant question that arose out of those experiences: how do we create cities in which both 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds can move about safely and enjoyably? "We have to stop building cities as if everyone is 30 years-old and athletic," he says.

His 8 to 80 litmus test involves imagining a public space, but especially a busy city street or intersection, and asking whether it is suitable for young and old alike. In all too many locations – signalized crossings on wide suburban arterials, narrow bike lanes, over-taxed sidewalks, etc. – the answer will be no.

By way of solutions, Penalosa’s group has advised cities like Seville and Guadalajara on the importance of more accessible surface transit, improved cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, and more programmable park space.

But in many aging societies, where the proportion of seniors will grow as much as four-fold over the next two decades, public space improvements alone won’t make large urban areas, especially car-dependent suburbs, more suitable to the needs of older residents. Indeed, one of the most difficult questions facing urban areas is how they will go about making themselves more age-friendly.

Accessibility is obviously a big piece of the puzzle. In Japan, where the aging curve is further along, planning officials and architects have promoted “universal design” principles that can be found in such amenities as multi-generational housing meant to address the shortage of caregivers.

In a 2009 study of age-friendly cities, the Ontario Professional Planners Institute recommended that governments collaborate to develop community “hubs” that can house a range of services under one roof. The OPPI also urged government agencies to intentionally integrate, rather than segregate, age-related services, such as seniors’ drop-in centers and child-care facilities, as has been done successfully in several Scandinavian countries.  

The riddle of aging and cities has even attracted the attention of the World Health Organization, which in recent years has established an information-sharing network for age-friendly cities, as well an 82-page guide on a wide array of issues and potential solutions. As the report notes, “Population aging and urbanization are the culmination of successful human development during the last century. They also are major challenges for this century.”

Top image: A girl walks next to an elderly woman selling plants at the entrance of a pedestrian subway in Kiev, Ukraine. (REUTERS/Konstantin Chernichkin)

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