As urbanization and aging trends continue, sustainable development will depend on making cities more livable, environmentally friendly, socially inclusive, and competitive.
The last 40 years have seen urbanization soar in the People’s Republic of China, leaving 60% of the country’s population now living in urban areas. Coinciding with this, the country’s society has been rapidly aging. As these urbanization and aging trends continue, sustainable development will depend on making cities more livable, healthy and age-friendly, environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive, and competitive.
This not only requires a reconsideration and improvement of social security and pension systems, as well as health and elderly care services. Cities also need to adapt to this profound demographic transition while incorporating lessons from the ongoing pandemic.
Contemporary urban life in the People’s Republic of China and elsewhere has seen increased individuality with reduced social cohesion, smaller families, fewer children, and many people living alone. To counter these trends, city design and urban management has a potential to promote social cohesion and reinvent community life.
For example, healthy and age-friendly cities could be promoted with cohesive neighborhoods if there is a rethink and rehabilitation of the system of compounds (xiao qu). The rehabilitation of urban compounds will need to be a comprehensive and participatory effort contributing to more walkability, and improved health, safety, resilience, and active community life.
This means reducing the number of fences and gates and introducing new pathways for pedestrians and bicycles through current compounds to create a finer mesh of pedestrian and bicycle networks. In the process, walking distances would be significantly shortened. Also new small buildings can be introduced with 2-4 stories, as careful infill development between residential high-rise buildings with community spaces, small shops and other uses.
These actions would create an environment on a more human scale amid the typical wide roads and tall buildings as well as create well-defined spaces that are either public, semipublic for the local residents, or private for individual households.
If Chinese cities and urban spaces can be made more walkable and less dependent on cars, this would bring healthier lifestyles to the residents and more interaction for the communities. That would be good news for everybody and especially for the elderly and children who can walk more and in safer urban environments.
One out of every five people will be aged over 60 in the People’s Republic of China by 2030, reaching “super aged society”, rising to more than one in three by 2050. Many of these older people will grow to advanced ages, becoming part of an emerging four-generation urban society. It is a trend that can be observed not only in the People’s Republic of China but in many other, especially high income, countries.
Recognizing this, urban planners could consider a number of internationally recognized best practices for sustainable urban development. These include the “compact city” concept, in which an urban area is organized in clusters of pedestrian-friendly, high-density mixed-use center areas within walking distance around public transport stations, inclusive of green open space, referred to as transit-oriented development.
Other practices are low-carbon development, to which compact cities contribute, and climate-resilient urban development. In this, green infrastructure and parks should be combined with gray infrastructure to provide flood and drought risk management, air quality and microclimate improvements, act as habitat for a diversity of plant and animal species, and serve as green amenities for urban residents.
If Chinese cities and urban spaces can be made more walkable and less dependent on cars, this would bring healthier lifestyles to the residents and more interaction for the communities.
The overall objective must be to make cities livable and socially inclusive. This includes not only environmentally sustainable planning but ensuring accessibility to affordable and social housing and to public services, education, health and attractive jobs. Integrating health and aging as part of sustainable urban environment improvement and city planning and urban design will bring together many agencies and specialists to work across sectors and disciplines.
While these good principles create many benefits, it is important to assess health- and age-specific opportunities by adapting specific features into existing cities and in new projects in urban development, building, infrastructure, and open space. This will be vital for urban competitiveness and will be a factor in the decisions of individuals and companies to remain or locate in a certain city.
Making cities healthier, plus elderly and children-friendly, requires well-planned urban green space, safe, clean and walkable urban environments, accessible services especially for these groups, and to generally promote healthy lifestyles. All of these will help ease public health management in an era when infectious diseases such as the COVID-19 pandemic, noncommunicable diseases, and the challenges of increasingly aging populations are converging.
Cities also need to combine an age-friendly public transport system with safe and convenient sidewalks and pathways, bicycle parking, parks, public spaces, and public service facilities. This effort needs to be integrated with universal urban design to ensure that public spaces, sidewalks, parks, and buildings are accessible for people of all ages and the physically impaired.
Prioritizing health and age-inclusion will not only become the driver and platform for urban action to manage the many challenges of the emerging four-generation urban world, but it is a great opportunity for transforming urban community life.
Neighborhoods would have small streets, plazas, gardens, scaled and safe sidewalks and safe living streets where people come first rather than cars. If designed well and further assisted by local social workers, all residents would contribute to care for children and the elderly, just by being part of a highly interactive local community.
If these principles of urban rehabilitation are applied, local social cohesion and well-being in cities will be improved. Urban health and age-inclusive designs will also contribute to the country’s wider Healthy China 2030 Plan and promote more general well-being and high-quality development, an overarching objective of the 14th Five-Year Plan. And urban rehabilitation and retrofitting will also lead to reduced carbon emissions as people walk more, and contribute to the country’s objective of carbon peaking by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.
A version of this article was published in China Daily.