Improving with age? How city design is adapting to older populations

Improving with age? How city design is adapting to older populations
An elderly woman in Stockport town centre / © Christopher Thomond

As cities experience a demographic shift, the need for age-friendly design is becoming ever more critical. From almshouses to driverless cars, the future of urban housing and mobility may just be shaped for and by the elderly

There is no denying it: like it or not we are all getting older. According to the UN World Population Prospects report, the global population of older people is growing at an unprecedented rate. By 2050, for the first time in human history, there will be more over-65s than children under 15. The number of people over 100 will increase by 1,000%. And as by then 70% of the world’s population will likely live in cites, this will present huge challenges, and cities will need to adapt.

Of course an ageing population is not inherently a bad thing: it reflects improved health and rising life expectancies. However, as we age, our housing, transport and social needs change. By preparing for this, policymakers, town planners and architects can make it more likely that older populations can still lead fulfilling lives.

The global engineering firm Arup has looked at how authorities are responding to this demographic shift. Stefano Recalcati, project leader behind the firm’s report Shaping Ageing Cities, explains that cities must adjust if older people are to maintain quality of life: “It’s important to be conscious of the ageing trend. It is a huge challenge for world cities – they will need to change, to make sure older people continue to play an active role in the community and don’t become isolated. Isolation has a negative impact on health so tackling that is really important.”

“Small innovations can make a difference,” Recalcati adds. “Older people are less likely to drive, favouring public transport and walking. The average person over 65 manages a walking speed of 3km/hour. At 80 that goes down to 2km/hour, compared with the average for a working age person of 4.8km/hour. Reducing the distance between transport stops, shops, benches, trees for shade, public toilets and improving pavements and allowing more time to cross the road all encourage older people to go out.” […]