Our Elders Who Built Our Great Cities Deserve Better

Too many urban spaces are daunting to older people. But Lyon and Manchester show that they needn’t be.

Stand at the traffic lights on a major street in any city. Now, when the green man invites you, try to cross the road. Unless you have the acceleration of an Olympic sprinter, the chances are that the beeps will stop, the green man will flash and cars will rev impatiently before you’ve reached the sanctuary of the other side. Especially if you have a disability, are pushing a buggy or laden with shopping. Or are old. The Department of Health says the average walking speed demanded by pedestrian crossings is 1.2 metres a second, while the average speed of the older pedestrian is just 0.7 to 0.9 metres per second.

607-02Cities are designed for a mythical average person – super-mobile, without dependants or disabilities but with a cast-iron bladder. This person is more likely to be young than old. And yet by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities and, in high-income societies, a quarter of them will be over the age of 60.


There’s a paradox at the heart of cities and old people, and it’s this: all the research on health and wellbeing – and there’s reams of it – suggests that old people are more content and more likely to flourish if they go out, participate in local life and have a decent amount of social interaction.

And yet about half of people over 65 face problems getting outdoors; for them the city is an inhospitable place, with its cluttered streets, uneven pavements, poor lighting and signage. Details – like the bus driver who moves off before you have time to sit down, or doesn’t park close enough to the kerb – have a huge impact on their sense of confidence and safety. But if they stay in – in “self-imposed house arrest”, as Chris Phillipson, professor of sociology and social gerontology at the University of Manchester, calls it – their physical and mental health is liable to deteriorate, and they’re prone to isolation and depression.

“258 cities and communities have signed up to the WHO’s Age-Friendly Cities project.”

The result is that our city centres have become age-cleansed youth enclaves, where the only older people to be seen (in theatres, museums and concerts) are affluent ones. “It’s a form of spatial injustice that has crept up on us: we’ve come to accept that certain areas of the urban environment are appropriate only for certain income groups and ages, as if that’s just how it is,” says Phillipson. “It’s quite dangerous, as if we’re pushing certain social groups back into the home.” Where they become, literally, socially invisible.

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It’s curious, then, that the chief narrative about ageing should dwell so much on biomedical ideas of declining bodies requiring clinical solutions, and so little on the ways in which the environment is itself disabling for older people. It’s an approach that privatises public experience, displacing it on to the individual and their deteriorating capacities. Ageing becomes a “problem”, and a personal matter rather than a relational one, that takes place in the symbiosis of body and culture. What would it be like to reconfigure this, so we’re not seen as impaired by age – to understand that human needs change over a lifetime and the well-designed city should be sensitive to them?

This is precisely what the World Health Organisation has done with its Age-Friendly Cities project, set up in 2006, which shows how the physical and social environment can help people “age actively”. Now 258 cities and communities have signed up to what has become a global network, with Manchester in 2010 the first British city to join. The concept of “age-friendly” cities seems to be having a moment, with three events on age-friendly cities taking place this month. Public Wisdom, which runs an education programme and has organised one of the events, is even campaigning to turn Angel in Islington, north London, into the UK’s first age-friendly town centre.

But what does all this actually mean? Peruse the literature on this matter and you end up suffering from mission statement fatigue. Much of what’s being called for is simply an improvement to the fabric of the city. Better housing? Check. Better public transport? Check. Better infrastructure? Check. It’s a wish-list that, whatever our ages, we’d all applaud. Yet we’re living in an age of savage slicing of public services, with city centres shaped by marauding developers who care not one fig if they’re age- or indeed people-friendly.

“The take-a-seat initiative, in Manchester’s Old Moat area, gave chairs to local shops so people could sit down.”

Are the abundant joint strategies, steering groups, actions plans, forums, workshops and hubs advocating “age-friendly” cities anything more than, at best, an aspiration that demonstrates how age-unfriendly most cities are?

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Paul McGarry, of the Age-Friendly Manchester programme, concedes that, while there may be “an element of slogan to it, we’re trying to change the way that old people are perceived”. And then I realise that I’ve been looking in the wrong place – searching for the grand gesture, the sweeping change: age-friendly by government fiat. In reality, age-friendly changes are taking place all around us at the level where most of us live – locally and hyper-locally. They are micro-changes, which is why they’re so easily overlooked. The take-a-seat initiative, in Manchester’s Old Moat area, gave chairs to a row of local shops so that people could sit down, without any pressure to buy or consume on the premises. Like putting shelters and seats at bus stops, this also encourages social interaction.

In the newly reopened Whitworth gallery all the guides are trained to be “dementia-friendly”. Manchester’s Band on the Wall club is reclaimed every couple of months for clubbers over 50. Then there are age-friendly allotments, with raised beds to make them accessible to people in wheelchairs, age-friendly gardens (no steps), and in Newcastle the “vitality bench” (arm-rests that help you get up, and warm-to-touch materials).

Other countries are innovating, too. Lyon’s “cyclopousse” is a delightful pedicab transport service tailored for older people. The Adeg and Kaiser supermarket chains in Germany have wider aisles, non-skid floors, lower shelves, brighter lighting, larger price labels and magnifying labels hanging from chains.

Most interesting, perhaps, are what Sophie Handler, author of the fabulously playful An Alternative Age-Friendly Handbook (co-produced in Manchester), calls “third spaces” and “meanwhile spaces”. This is where ostensibly private spaces are “borrowed” as public spaces of rest and chat, blurring the boundary of public and private. They often retrofit or modify what already exists, as in Eindhoven, where a design group, physiotherapists and residents of a sheltered housing complex together transformed the lamp-posts, benches and fences on a street into an alternative “public gym”. Participation in design is key: this in itself reconceives old people as an active resource, rather than passive victims of urban change.

The ability to do leg-lifts in the street may not reverse the age-apartheid evident in city centres, but the revolution will be easier with bold new thinking and supple joints. We should start it now.


This feature is originally from The Guardian.



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