How Do We Design Cities for the Third Age? 2

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015
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Not everyone wants a sea or tree change in retirement. An increasing number of people are deciding to stay put in the cities they know and love.

With their greater wealth, higher levels of education and better health, many baby boomers are attracted to very different lifestyles to those favoured by previous generations. Increasingly, the bright lights of our cities appeal to them, often for the same reasons that young people love city life – diversity, opportunity and amenity.

By 2050, around one in four Australians will be 65 years or older. And yet, traditionally, planners and policy makers have focused their attentions on making their communities great places for families or on attracting talented knowledge-workers. Few people have considered how to make cities appealing for older people.

When we think of ‘growing older’ we tend to focus on health and social care issues, but the built environment has a significant impact on the mobility, independence and quality of life experienced by older Australians.

Low-density living, a characteristic of many Australian cities, is not particularly age-friendly. Safe pedestrian networks, easy access to shops and services, a mix of housing options, nearby health centres and recreational facilities – these are all elements that can positively affect the ageing process and help people stay connected with their community.

By looking through our cities through the eyes of an older person, we can make our communities more accessible. Narrow, uneven or cracked pavements are potential hazards for older people. So too are cars parked haphazardly, pedestrian crossing lights that change too quickly, and a lack of separate lanes for cyclists.

Urban areas and parks without rest areas can discourage seniors from getting around. Public facilities and shops located far away from where seniors live and without adequate transport can deter them from maintaining an active life in the community.

In fact, residents of all ages benefit from safer, more accessible streets. A pedestrian network designed for a wheelchair or scooter is also good for a parent pushing a pram. Cities designed for 80-year-olds are also great for eight-year-olds – and for everyone else too.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found that most older people want to ‘age in place.’ They want to remain connected with their community and the services with which they are familiar, but they don’t necessarily want to remain in the family home. In fact, research tells us that 84 per cent of those who want to downsize wish to remain within their suburb. Despite this, we are frequently seeing retirement living options positioned on the fringes of our cities. This can leave older people with no choice but to remain in houses that are far too big.

Instead, picture a retirement village, not on the edge of the city, but in the centre. Imagine that place has cafes and culture on the doorstep, as well as daily domestic, medical and nursing services on hand, front desk staff to screen visitors, a resident handyman on call when a light blows, and an IT expert to help with the troublesome WiFi. It’s easy to see why older people would love this lifestyle.

The growing number of older people in our society should not be a cause for alarm, but should be celebrated as a great social achievement. So let’s celebrate it by designing cities that celebrate the third age.

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  1. Guy Luscombe

    Well said Catherine, more fuel for the fire of change!

  2. Jane Bringolf

    Great article that reiterates all the recent research, both academic and private. But the property industry/Property Council still thinks all older people want to be herded into segregated living arrangements. For some, this is their choice, but for the majority, they want to stay at home (home being the operative word, not a thing called equity). Not every older person lives in a home too big either (think worker cottages) – other research has shown all rooms are utilised. However, we do need more councils to take up the WHO Age Friendly Cities Program – it is friendly for all ages.