Six Ways to Make Cities Healthier and Age-Friendly

Making cities and green and livable for an older population will pay off for over the long term. Photo: ADB
Making cities and green and livable for an older population will pay off for over the long term. Photo: ADB

By Elene Machaidze, Stefan Rau

To stay competitive, cities must become healthy, livable places for an emerging urban society which has more older people and fewer children.

More than 65% of the world’s population will be concentrated in cities by 2050. This along with rapid aging, smaller households, and fewer children forces us to prioritize healthy and age-friendly city planning and public space design.

This a challenging prospect for the massive cities of Asia but a look at best practices around the world offers a path forward. The world’s healthiest and most inclusive cities show that planning should be integrated with consultation and investment in the following six areas:

Community. The key to forming a vibrant community is to encourage events, as well as participation from people of various ages and ethnic backgrounds, to ensure that everyone feels included. All age groups should be respected and included in social gatherings and decision-making.

All age groups must be given the opportunity to share their knowledge, histories, and experience with future generations. Because many people feel isolated and lonely, there must be activities that will improve their mental health.  Another important component in building a robust and varied society is encouraging jobs and lifelong learning for people of all ages.

People must also feel connected to their communities through the creation of digital and physical networks.

Public spaces and buildings. Adjusting public spaces and buildings to be safe and accessible is one of the most important needs of a healthy and inclusive city. City parks should provide adequate shelter, restroom facilities, and easily accessible seats, as well as opportunity to play and engage with the natural environment.

Prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists should also be a top priority; infrastructure should be improved to encourage walking and cycling, and “traffic calming” should be implemented that make streets less dangerous and chaotic, including measures such as speed bumps. Moreover,  cities should be organized in increments of compact, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods; and streets should be better connected and more areas need to be open to the public.

One powerful tool is to apply universal design principles to all public places and buildings, such as sidewalks, plazas, parks, public buildings and services, and transportation systems. Elevators, ramps, proper signs, stair railings, steps that are not excessively high or steep, non-slip floors, restrooms with comfortable chairs, and enough public toilets should all be required features in all public spaces and buildings.

Transport.  Making cities healthier requires rethinking public transportation; it should become more affordable, convenient and accessible, safe, reliable and frequent, and vehicles should follow universal design principles. Citizens should have many alternative mobility options for combining public transportation with other forms of travel.  Cities should offer affordable taxis in addition to a good public transportation system. Being able to move freely gives people a sense of independence and empowerment.

Prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists should be a top priority.

Housing. Cities and the private sector should provide social and affordable housing for specific vulnerable groups, people living with chronic conditions, and the homeless, and households for the elderly and children. Therefore, it is important to create a diverse housing mix for all kinds of needs and requirements.

The World Health Organization’s concept of “aging in place” should be enabled through an adequate housing supply with elderly-friendly—but also family- and children-friendly—buildings and apartments, complemented by home-based and community-based elderly care services and play areas and local child-care facilities.

To prevent loneliness and isolation, cities should encourage multigenerational housing and community integration both on the building and neighborhood levels. Moreover, buildings should also be energy-efficient and with daylight and natural ventilation, and housing modifications should be affordable.

Basic infrastructure. Policies need to be enacted to improve air, water, and soil quality and reduce exposure to air, water, and soil pollution; ensure access for all to safe and secure drinking water as well as sanitation and wastewater management; ensure clean surface water; ensure proper solid waste management, including hazardous waste management (also medical waste); reduce excessive noise; and reduce risk of flooding and heatwaves. Social infrastructure should ensure equal opportunities and access to education from early childhood education to lifelong learning.

Municipalities should also increase access to healthier food for the general population, decrease exposure to unhealthy food environments, and increase access to a good diet in schools and elderly care facilities.

Further,  addressing climate change will aid in the development of healthy cities by lowering flood risk and the urban heat island effect. Municipalities should manage disaster risks, and prepare response plans and mechanisms, to ensure a safe and clean environment for everyone.

Health services. Cities must ensure that healthcare, elderly care, and other social services are well-distributed throughout the city, are conveniently co-located, and can be reached readily by all means of transportation. Creating an adequate and diverse range of health and community support including residence-based personal care, community care, and institutional care will have a positive impact on the quality life of citizens of all age groups.

In tackling these six dimensions, it is important to cooperate across administrative departments, with other public and private stakeholders, communities, and with people of all age groups to find common ground.

It is critical that cities are transformed to become more livable and fit for the future of the emerging urban society with more older people and fewer children. Doing so will be a competitive advantage for cities that act swiftly and decisively.

This blog is based on information from the event, Healthy and Age-Friendly Cities - Best Practices Around the World.