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Intelligent Planning of Age-Friendly Cities

  Published: 22 December 2017
  Theme: Planning

 Intelligent planning of age friendly cities

(Photo: Stephanie Wee)

With populations rapidly ageing, there is a need for a robust and scientific understanding of the needs of the elder generation, to ensure that they experience a good living environment and adequate levels of care and social support.

The speed at which populations are ageing underlines the urgency of this research. The United Nations Population Fund predicts that the proportion of the global population aged 60 or older will rise from about 12 per cent today to almost 22 per cent by 20501. This is particularly acute in developed economies. In Japan, for instance, a quarter of the nation’s population is aged 60 or above — this is expected to rise to 30 per cent by 2030.

Despite the existence of facilities and support programmes that cater for the aged, challenges remain within neighbourhoods that need to be addressed. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Enabling older people to navigate and travel independently, safely and comfortably without fear within their neighbourhood
  • Enhancing the distribution of services and amenities to promote physical and intellectual activity
  • Retain social meanings and values held by older people
  • Improving older people’s quality of life and social relations

“Creating age-friendly environments and investing in preventative programmes in a context of economic austerity can be challenging for cities,” says Samuèle Rémillard-Boilard, PhD Researcher in Sociology, School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester. “Addressing diversity and inequalities in ageing, and promoting social inclusion is key to making cities more age-friendly.”

Closing the Knowledge Gap

Cities are taking steps to plan and design age-friendly neighbourhoods, and have begun researching the needs and preferences of the elderly. “Governments and businesses need to see evidence of the challenges the elderly pose, as well as the positive contribution they can make to society and the economy,” explains Professor Hiroko Akiyama of the Institute of Gerontology, University of Tokyo.

In-depth studies that unearth challenging issues will allow the public and private sector to develop effective solutions, as well as broaden their understanding of the aged in general. To better understand the value and development of age-friendly neighbourhoods, Professor Akiyama argues that studies must examine both physical and social issues and offer practical, easily implementable solutions that involve all actors and stakeholders.

Building Age-Friendly Communities in Japan

With people living longer and birth rates falling, Japan’s aging population means that facilities and amenities are becoming increasingly obsolete. This is exemplified in the small city of Kashiwa, which typifies these challenges.

“The existing social infrastructure of Kashiwa was built when only five per cent of residents were aged 65 or older,” explains Professor Akiyama. “But as the population rapidly aged, the city had to rethink how it approached matters such as housing, healthcare, employment and education.”

In response, the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Gerontology embarked on research initiatives to better understand and develop age-friendly cities. In collaboration with public partners, the institute conducted a large-scale social experiment to assess and improve the elderly liveability of a typical Japanese neighbourhood.

The city’s 5,000-unit Toyoshikidai Danchi residential development was built in the 1960s and designed for young families and professionals. However, by 2010 more than 40 per cent of residents were aged 65 or over2. To ascertain the challenges facing Kashiwa’s aged and map out potential solutions, researchers conducted interviews, symposiums and seminars with Toyoshikidai Danchi residents, businesses, community groups and government officials.

The research revealed the need of seniors to engage with both peers and other age groups — studies cited by the institute confirm that a decline in physical independence is notably pronounced among elderly who have minimal content with family or neighbours3 — and stressed the need to introduce newer, smaller units specifically designed for aged residents. The institute also revealed the vast diversity of the city’s seniors, and highlighted the willingness of retirees to work — more than 80 per cent of seniors said they wanted to work in some capacity4.

To address these issues, Kashiwa launched two initiatives:

  • A community eatery, where seniors eat and engage with peers and other age groups. Data shows that seniors living by themselves seldom eat home cooking and consequently tend to be undernourished — a condition that leads to health problems5. The eatery therefore serves the dual purpose of providing healthy meals to the aged and acting as a setting to socialise with community members.
  • Job opportunities for the aged in non-strenuous roles, including farming, catering, childcare and community support6.

 

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Older persons working as professional child carers in Kashiwa City, Japan. (Photo: Institute of Gerontology, University of Tokyo)

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Vertical gardening in Kashiwa City. (Photo: Institute of Gerontology, University of Tokyo)

The impact of these initiatives has been significant: seniors live comfortably, contribute to the local economy and support their individual needs through employment. The recommendations made by the research team have since become public municipality policies — not just in Kashiwa, but also in other cities across Japan. “We purposely built the model in Kashiwa so that other cities would say, ‘If Kashiwa can do this, so can we’,” enthuses Professor Akiyama.

Elderly Researching the Elderly in the UK

Research conducted by The University of Manchester revealed that an unintended consequence of urban development is increased alienation of the elderly — physically, socially and emotionally7. With the two-pronged goal of understanding the needs of seniors and increasing the age-friendliness of the city, the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing (MICRA) was launched in 2010.

A notable feature of MICRA’s work is the involvement of older people in age-related research. Hired to examine experiences of ageing in three neighbourhoods of the city, the institute trained 18 local older volunteers as co-researchers. These seniors not only contributed to the initiative by sharing their own skills and personal knowledge, but also conducting 68 interviews with older people, who were previously difficult to engage with.

Key findings revealed by the co-researchers included8:

  • Senior citizens prefer to live in cities in their elderly years — contrary to the widespread perception in the UK that retirees prefer to live in rural area
  • The elderly are seldom asked for their opinions on public amenities and community issues, many of which are inaccessible and inappropriate for the elderly
  • When socially connected, older persons live a healthier life and are not as reliant on the social welfare system

In response to the initiative’s findings, Manchester City Council set about making changes to public spaces, making them more age-friendly. For instance, it rebuilt public pathways with minimal steps and invested in age-friendly public transport. In conjunction with several non-government organisations, the city council formed numerous social enterprises, where older persons can meet other older persons and take part in social activities.

 

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MICRA co-researchers. (Photo: Mark Waugh)

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Manchester’s Alexandra Park, which underwent an extensive renovation to make it age-friendly. (Photo: Mark Waugh)

The Age-Friendly Design Group has developed a set of age-friendly design guidelines for the city. Made up of retired architects, planners, design students and urban designers, the group tests and hones these guidelines through a number of demonstrator projects, and seeks to understand how age-friendly design works in practice. Among others these include the Age-Friendly Seating and Sense of Place project9, a study that revealed the importance of seating design and location to the elderly, and the Alternative Age-Friendly Handbook10, essays that explore different approaches to age-friendly urban planning.

“These projects highlight the role urban planners can play in the creation of age-friendly cities,” says Rémillard-Boilard. “By removing barriers in the social and built environment, involving older people in the decision-making process, and considering how older people experience their environments, urban planners can help cities become more inclusive and responsive.”

Learnings for Global Cities

Kashiwa and Manchester demonstrate the value of research that examines the viewpoints and needs of elderly communities. Access to amenities, transportation and housing are obviously key, but the findings from these cities also highlight the importance of social infrastructure and community support to age-friendly neighbourhoods.

Kashiwa created an integrated community care system and a means for the elderly to financially support themselves and the local economy. Manchester gave the elderly a voice, a sense of ownership and the opportunity to participate in the research process, which has been crucial in understanding the elderly, and planning and designing age-friendly cites. The studies also underline the importance of making the aged feel part of society, rather than seeing themselves as a burden to the younger generation or the state.

To meet the needs of Singapore’s elderly, the Urban Redevelopment Authority in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, Agency of Integrated Care, Housing Development Board and Building Construction Authority, have begun a research project that examines the impact of urban design on the aged. Titled “Innovative Planning and Design of Age-friendly Neighbourhoods in Singapore”, the initiative’s objectives are multifold: to assess the age-friendliness of neighbourhoods; investigate how persons aged 55 years and above understand and interact with their community and built environment; and ascertain the connections between a neighbourhood’s built environment and an older person’s social, physical and mental health.

Using both qualitative and quantitative research, and working with architects and urban planners, the project’s findings will be used to develop planning guidelines and context-specific design strategies and interventions that can be applied to Singapore neighbourhoods.

Like the efforts of Kashiwa and Manchester, Singapore’s initiative is ultimately aimed at making the city-state more elderly-friendly, and to provide insights that can be used by planners in Singapore and beyond.

 

References

1.http://www.unfpa.org/ageing
2. Professor Hiroko Akiyama, Institute of Gerontology, University of Tokyo
3. http://www.u-tokyo.ac.jp/en/utokyo-research/feature-stories/toward-active-living-by-a-centenarian-generation/
4. http://www.u-tokyo.ac.jp/en/utokyo-research/feature-stories/toward-active-living-by-a-centenarian-generation/
5.http://www.u-tokyo.ac.jp/en/utokyo-research/feature-stories/toward-active-living-by-a-centenarian-generation/
6. http://www.u-tokyo.ac.jp/content/400022034.jpg
7. http://www.manchester.gov.uk/download/downloads/id/23615/age-friendly_seating_and_sense_of_place.pdf
8. http://hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/schools/soss/brochures/Age-Friendly-Booklet.pdf
9. http://www.manchester.gov.uk/download/downloads/id/23615/age-friendly_seating_and_sense_of_place.pdf
10. http://hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/institutes/micra/Handbooks/Age-friendly%20Handbook_LARGE%20PRINT%20VERSION.pdf

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