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Designing an Intergenerational City

  Published: 16 July 2018
  Theme: Planning

Aging societies are prompting cities to rethink how they are structured and operate, both physically and socially.

“An aging and multigenerational society presents several challenges if left unmanaged,” asserts Dr Emi Kiyota, President and founder of Ibasho, a US-based non-profit organisation that strives to create socially integrated and sustainable communities that value their elders.

“With the number of generations increasing from three to four, and even five in some communities, this has the potential to isolate various age groups, and cause social and economic harm.”

An aging society can add significant financial burden to national governments. It also increases financial pressure on families and society to take care of the elderly. Social challenges are prevalent: the elderly can feel excluded from society and are often the subject of stereotypical attitudes, where they are seen as a burden to younger generations.

While the physical effects of aging are well understood, the social integration of the elderly among younger generations is a field where comparatively little research has been conducted1. Furthermore, studies that explore how various generations interact — not just the elderly, but between other age groups — are equally in short supply.

“A common problem faced by cities globally is that research in the field of intergenerational interaction is limited,” explains Dr Leng Leng Thang, Council Member, Families for Life, and Associate Professor, Department of Japanese Studies, National University of Singapore. “Relatively little is known in this area when compared to other fields like medical research, but the studies that have taken place highlight the benefits intergenerational interaction can create.”

Designing cities that cater for all ages is a relatively new undertaking. Indeed, as the number of generations within society widens, the importance of this field to urban planners will likely increase. Cities should not focus on catering to one generation at the expense of alienating or excluding another — this would lead to widespread social challenges, such as loneliness, and mental and physical health issues.

Mutually Beneficial Value

The value different generations bring to families, communities and the workforce are diverse and mutually beneficial. For instance, the elderly can teach the youth about culture, history and life experiences; and conversely, younger generations can introduce new technology and other trends to the elderly.

A 2017 study conducted by US-based non-profit organisations Generations United and The Eisner Foundation argues the case for greater intergenerational interaction2 . Titled I Need You, You Need Me: The Young, The Old, And What We Can Achieve Together, the study found that two-thirds of adults said they wanted to spend time with people who are not their age, while three-quarters wished there were more opportunities to get to know different age groups.

The study asserts that when generations interact together, stereotypes break down and attitudes change. This fosters mutual empathy and improves community harmony. The study pinpoints how adults can share their knowledge and experience with the young through mentoring and tutoring, and provide attention and emotional support. It also highlights how intergenerational programmes can improve the social skills, confidence and decision-making of the youth.

These findings are supported by another report, Hidden in Plain Sight: How Intergenerational Relationships Can Transform Our Future3, co-published by the Stanford Center on Longevity, Encore.org and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The report highlights how older adults’ “years of living give them an almost intangible ability to communicate and model non-cognitive skills and to help young people develop those key traits”. On the other hand, “in promoting the well-being of the next generation, older adults experience fulfillment and purpose in their own lives”.

“For intergenerational dialogue to flow more readily, there must be an environment where generations can integrate seamlessly,” states Dr Thang. “There must be space conducive for engagements; design that integrates and not segregates different generations in the same space; and programmes and policies that aim at breaking institutional isolation in favour of dialogues across the generations.”

Shared spaces and activities that are housed under one roof make intergenerational contact informal and ongoing. Countries that have successfully created shared spaces include Japan, the UK and the US. In Japan, for instance, the Inside the Ibasho Café in Ōfunato, Iwate Prefecture — a scheme founded by Dr Kiyota — is a space where elders look after other elders, help young mothers by watching their children, and organise multi-generational activities to share their wisdom to community members of all ages. Such places are cost-effective, and enhance the social capital among the community members.


Inside the Ibasho Café in Ōfunato, Iwate Prefecture, Japan. Founded by Dr Kiyota, the facility allows elders to interact with other age groups and act as a vital source of wisdom. Drinks and snacks are available in the café, and are served by older members of their community. (Photo: Ibasho.org)

Unearthing Multigenerational Needs

While the value of intergenerational spaces is clear, the planning and designing of these spaces are not so simple. A study by Danish urban designers arki_lab4 set about to discover the main challenges in designing such spaces as well as various solutions to overcome these issues.

Three findings are particularly noteworthy:

  1. Different age-groups have different time-schedules, which means they will be segregated at various times throughout the day. Solutions to this challenge might include sharing common areas with facilities catering to different generations, and leveraging overlaps in time schedules to create opportunities for interaction
  2. Age segregation tends to exists across many levels of government and other public sector entities. These may focus on children and education, or work and health. The report notes how this can create organisational boundaries, which inhibit age-integration to flourish; it suggests creating cross-departmental and inter-ministry groups and projects that work across disparate teams
  3. Defining the degree of age-integration that planners wish to facilitate is important. Planners should consider designing a healthy balance of both spaces that encourage interaction and spaces that allow more privacy for various age-groups

Focusing specifically on the planning of successful intergenerational spaces, the UK’s Oxford Institute of Population Ageing5 held a workshop in 2015 with the aim of creating a set of guiding principles for urban planners to consider.

The workshop suggests that choice is a key principle to consider when designing intergenerational spaces — hence allowing people of all generations to engage in intergenerational activities on their own terms and not involuntarily. Planners should also consider what can be added to existing spaces, and conduct activities that are meaningful to people emotionally, physically and economically. In addition, authorities must plan and operationalise intergenerational spaces on a range of scales. These could include large areas that are co-housed in public spaces, such as a shopping mall or public park, or they could reside in more intimate settings, such as a local community centre.

Intergenerational Interaction in Singapore — Beyond Physical Spaces

Throughout its modern development, Singapore has built spaces that allow intergenerational interactions to spontaneously take place. These spaces include the void decks of public housing blocks, where childcare facilities and kindergartens are located near informal social spaces for the elderly, as well as the children playgrounds and elderly fitness corners located contiguously. Locating such amenities in close proximity to each other is the first step in fostering intergenerational interactions.

A further step would be to enhance such spaces with universal design standards. There is a need to consciously include and design such spaces sensitively to push the possibilities of intergenerational interaction.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has engaged in studies and workshops aimed at exploring the impact of co-locating social facilities to reap positive impacts such as intergenerational interaction6. Involving other governmental agencies and the private sector, a key finding of URA’s work is how intergenerational spaces are only one part of the process towards developing a place for intergenerational exchange — the other part is to organise programmes and design spaces that encourage interaction.

While co-location is a core component of intergenerational interaction, equally important is co-programming and co-sharing of common spaces. In the future, such amenities could be planned and designed upfront for and with the private sector and users for co-programming and co-sharing of spaces to occur.


Possible intergenerational space concepts, created during URA's design thinking workshop.

The planning, design and programming of intergenerational spaces, and by extension, the intergenerational city, is an endeavour that challenges the age-based categories that stakeholders typically operate with. Because of this, a successfully designed intergenerational space would need the collaboration of all.

Operators and users will need to be persuaded of the benefits of such spaces, and be willing to take risks in collaborating with new partners. Planners and policymakers will need to create mechanisms to incorporate intergenerational planning into the planning process. Designers will need to create thoughtful spaces that maximises such benefits.

While the challenge is significant, so too are the benefits. Intergenerational spaces will be the key in turning the elderly from a supposed burden in society to a clear asset for all generations.


  1. http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/family/docs/egm11/EGM_Expert_Paper_Theng_Leng_Leng.pdf
  2. https://dl2.pushbulletusercontent.com/If3l9M9upp56voQ6tvG1mXbA41QZbrlK/GU-Full-Report-WEB.pdf
  3. http://longevity3.stanford.edu/hidden-in-plain-sight-how-intergenerational-relationships-can-transform-our-future/
  4. http://www.arkilab.dk/a-short-guide-to-how-to-design-intergenerational-urban-spaces/
  5. http://www.ageing.ox.ac.uk/blog/2015-intergenerational-contact-zones-blog
  6. Most recently, URA organised a design thinking workshop in March 2017 involving public sector agencies, private operators and architects, and voluntary welfare organisations to explore new ways to plan social and community facilities in Singapore.