The ageing of Australia is becoming a more frequently discussed topic, and so it should.

In 1970, Australians aged 65 or more accounted for just eight per cent of the population. This rose to 13 per cent in 2001 and will rise to one in every four Australians by 2042.

There are widespread ramifications for our society and for our economy that are going to occur because of this. Not least of which is that whereas only as recently as 2002 there were more than five working age people for every person aged 65 plus, there will only be half as many working age people supporting each person aged 65 plus by 2042. Our tax system isn’t designed to cope with this, and neither are our current approaches to providing suitable housing choices for ageing Australians.

But what’s architecture’s role in preparing Australia for a very different demographic future? Isn’t this an issue for economists and politicians?

I certainly don’t see it that way. The profession will become even more specialised in the design of new retirement living and aged care facilities. These will be created around entirely different models of ‘care’ for communities with an entirely new psychology of resident. Much of this ‘new wave’ of design is happening now, with practices involved in a number of schemes which approach things like ‘aged care’ and ‘retirement living’ with a completely different set of eyes than those which created the legacy of traditional institutions, some of which continue to linger today.

More than this, the architecture profession will reach beyond the realm of site boundaries and project-specific needs and begin to consider ways in which entire suburbs can be re-designed. We will do this so the ageing population can continue to live in the surrounds they have been familiar with, without the need for large scale relocation to facilities on the other side of town simply because no sites were available nearby.

Many of us wish to continue to grow and age in the community environment we grew up in, or raised our families in. But the current design of many of our suburban environments isn’t supportive of that happening. Indeed, it’s fair to suggest that the nature of suburban design as it exists today was something prepared for a community that was much younger, much more active and in family formation stages of life. The nature of the houses, the nature of the shopping centres, the community facilities, transport networks and so on was all designed largely with young to middle age families in mind.

Protecting these designs from necessary adaptation to future needs out of some sentimental attachment or NIMBY-like instincts will not serve us well.  We can’t squeeze the needs of an ageing community into an environment designed for a young one. If one in every four of us is going to be aged over 65 within the next 25 years, we really need to start thinking about how our suburban environments can change and be re-modelled to better provide for an ageing in place population, and that needs to start now.

Should smaller houses on existing lots be allowed? Should this be concentrated around existing shopping centres or community centres of transit nodes? How do we provide for sufficient variety of new product such that it isn’t all designed for young singles, as today’s apartment projects seem to be? Should we begin to encourage further development on existing commercial or retail sites, targeting retiree or aged care markets?

How soon before we begin to see more widespread appearance of multi-level retirement living and aged care facilities rising above suburban shopping centre carparks, which were once the almost exclusive domain of teens and young families?

Changes in design will be driven by an undeniable change in our future social demography. Architecture will quickly find itself front and centre of the debate about how existing suburban communities should be redesigned to cater for some very different community needs in the near future. Far from being a subject just for economists and politicians, the ageing of Australian society is something that touches on us all and professions like architecture will have a new sense of purpose as the great suburban re-design begins to unfold in years to come.