The Urban Ages

What is an age-friendly city?

At the event that I recently organised, Future of London Placemaking, the question was asked whether London is only good for the young and the rich. Whilst sadly aware that the capital is becoming more economically exclusionary, it got me thinking more generally about age inclusivity in our contemporary cities. Are cities for the young, or more suited to middle-aged professionals? Is there a perfect age to live in a city, and are certain cities better for certain ages?

Places like London and Berlin are always characterized as ‘youthful cities’, but I have long seen them as thriving homes for a diversity of ages. The value of cities is a concentration of activity – this means increased jobs, culture and people. For children it is a great place of learning, for young adults a centre of work, for older adults a brilliant support system for professional and personal pursuits, and for retired citizens a connected hub of social and cultural opportunity. However, affordability is key here. Cities, the perfect locations for the young professionals and families, are now beginning to squeeze them out through ever-increasing rents and house prices. I know many graduates unable to afford the London life. When I recently visited Zurich, it was clear that here is a slick and rich city that attracts those in mid-career success who are wealthy, urban and active. Cities like Berlin offer more opportunities for a wider range of ages: affordable housing, a good transport network, interactive community spaces and more of a ‘sharing’ economy. Affordable, accessible public transport will always enable a wider group of people to enjoy the city. Cars are expensive, walking is not – but both are a problem for the mobility-impaired.

A new ‘youthful cities’ index has recently been launched, ranking cities based on 16 aspects that are apparently crucial for 16-29 year olds to successfully live, work and play in a place. Toronto, Berlin and NYC came out on top, perhaps unsurprisingly. However, as John McDermott articulated in the FT, what young people want from cities is not that much different from what the overall population wants. Affordability, equal employment opportunities, inclusive design, culture, public space, parks, accessible transport and social connections are desirable for all of us.

McDermott makes the point that the median age of a Londoner continues to drop – and is currently at 34. We are, however, faced with a future where the overall population will not be as young as today. RIBA recently published a report ‘Silver Linings: The Active Third Age and the City’, which outlines that in 2035, nearly a third of our UK population will be over the age of 60, leading to a more equal distribution of age groups within our society. So, do cities need to adapt to a demographic shift? RIBA imagines six scenarios for this urban future, ranging from urbanism based around healthy infrastructure to revitalised social high streets, multi-generational living and Third Ager Club Mansion blocks. Whilst we will indeed see a higher percentage of people over 60 in cities, this will be a group that becomes increasingly active, professionally and socially. I doubt the design of cities will drastically change just to suit one age group, however: at the heart of design should always remain inclusivity, for all ages and all people.

The Guardian’s top tips for creating an ‘age-friendly city’ include engagement with citizens: consulting them on what they need. I couldn’t agree more. This is crucial if we are going to make inclusive cities: we must champion participatory urbanism. Janet Dean reiterates that good design and management benefits more than one age group: ‘we found that many of the aspects of place which are good for people with dementia – a legible environment, clear signage, green spaces, manageable housing, reliable public transport with patient drivers – are good for everybody, whatever our age and our abilities.’

There is no doubt that a better city is a more diverse, inclusive city. A cheap, efficient and extensive public transport network benefits everyone. Spaces for social interaction both internal and external support all types of communities. Ultimately, affordability – across all aspects of design and services – will be the most inclusive step that city-makers can take. But beyond economics, we do need to encourage planners and policy-makers to constantly consult, engage and consider the diversity of ages that use and enjoy our cities. I believe in future cities that are not exclusionary for any ages, but are places that enable, include and support everyone.

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