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Urban ageing

  • Urbanisation is an ongoing phenomenon in Europe and urban populations are ageing as rapidly as other population types.
  • Urban policy-makers are coming to grips with the challenges of urban ageing but there is no impending crisis.
  • The creation of old-age-friendly, urban environments require co-ordination between older residents, politicians, civil servants, infrastructure professionals and other interested parties.
  • Financial resources may be available for improvements, but political will is more difficult to secure.
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The urbanisation of the world’s population is continuing apace. According to the UN half of the world’s population lived in cities in 2007. By 2050 the proportion is projected to reach two-thirds. Between 1980 and 2015, the proportion of France’s urban population increased from 73% to 80%, while in Switzerland it jumped from 57% to 74%. Although the number of urban residents remained roughly stable in Germany and Austria, the UN projects further slow, but steady urbanisation in all four countries over the next 25 years.

The Swiss are moving to the cities

Switzerland, in particular, has experienced a marked increase in older residents flocking to its urban areas, where 92% of the Swiss population aged over 65 now live.

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Source: UN: Urban and Rural Population by Age and Sex, 1980-2015 (version 3, August 2014).

92%
of the Swiss population aged over 65 live in urban areas.

Ageing urban populations reflect the general ageing of the population in Europe. In France, Germany and Austria roughly one in five urban residents is over 65, while in Switzerland this figure has crept closer to one in four.

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Source: UN: Urban and Rural Population by Age and Sex, 1980-2015 (version 3, August 2014)

The need for a policy response is clear

These substantial demographic shifts are adding pressure to urban resources, which in turn increases pressure on policy responses. Irina Ionita, secretary-general of PLATFORME—a grouping of old-age associations in Geneva—states that “major changes must occur in policies at all levels: international, national and local. Physical and psychological health are closely tied to the environment, especially in very urbanised areas, and the municipality has a fundamental role to play”. 

“Physical and psychological health are closely tied to the environment, especially in very urbanised areas, and the municipality has a fundamental role to play.”
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Irina Ionita

Secretary-general of PLATFORME – a grouping of old-age associations in Geneva.

Pierre-Olivier Lefebvre, executive director of the Réseau Francophone des Villes Amies des Aînés (RFVAA)— which is a sub-group of the Age-Friendly Cities programme set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO)and a body that allows urban governments to share best practice on age-friendly initiatives—adds that, in recent years, public officials have realised that they “can no longer be interested in only socio-medical questions when discussing older people… but must adapt cities in a more global way, taking into better account the social and built environment that shapes daily life.”

Since 2013 over 50 French cities have joined RFVAA. The WHO programme aims to develop and share best practice internationally and has been essential in forming a co-operative of urban governments that can join together to consider such issues.

Making cities more age-friendly, and sharing best practice, can help to create environments that promote autonomy for older urban residents. However, such goals are difficult to achieve.

No quick fixes

In an Economist Intelligence Unit survey, sponsored by Swiss Life, one-quarter of respondents over 65, based in Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland said that their ability to navigate the environment around them—including roads and transport systems—is among their most important considerations in maintaining an acceptable degree of autonomy.

This need exceeded all other considerations except health (both physical and mental) and economic resources. The emphasis on autonomy prompted 35% of respondents to say that their country needs public infrastructure that is more user-friendly for the elderly, and 32% mentioned that appropriate housing for this proportion of the population is lacking.

Simple, common solutions to such challenges do not exist. Difficulties and urban policy levers differ widely by country, and even by city. Ms Ionita notes that “despite starting from the same global reality, each country operates in its own particular manner”. Marcello Martinoni, an urban consultant who helped coordinate a Swiss research project on urban spaces for an ageing society, adds that although best practice examples are useful, “there are no universal solutions to specific problems even within countries. What might work very well in Lugano, for example, could be a disaster in Locarno just 30km away.”  

Equally important is that older populations are highly heterogeneous. “There is not one state of being old but many; each has to be understood with its own specific characteristics”, according to Ms Ionita. What proves essential to one group of older residents may be completely irrelevant to others.

Finding the political will

The WHO’s Age-Friendly Cities programme accordingly focuses on eight areas that contribute to autonomy in different ways; outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information as well as community support and health services.

A co-ordinated approach is necessary to avoid disjointed efforts that could focus solely on improvements in individual areas. Mr Martinoni points out that “on housing, you might have some general initiative to make a neighbourhood age-friendly. So you build some appropriate housing, but then you might end up having a ghetto” for the elderly if you do not consider issues such as social inclusion and participation. These can affect mental and physical health, and ultimately personal autonomy, as profoundly as inadequate accommodation.

While financial resources may be available for such projects and improvements, difficulties often lie in the area of budget allocation and whether or not the political will is there to help make such changes happen. Any important revisions at municipal level require political will but, despite an increased understanding of the impact of longevity, this can still be lacking. Angélique Philipona, head of development at the RFVAA, explains that often “the major difficulty is convincing a plurality of political, economic, social, and professional actors that the question of the ageing population concerns them.”

“Public policies tend to focus on problems that need solving. We should instead focus on what an ageing society can look like.”
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Marcello Martinoni

An urban consultant who helped coordinate a Swiss research project on urban spaces for an ageing society.

Part of the solution will involve changing how an ageing population is perceived. Mr Martinoni explains that “public policies tend to focus on problems that need solving. We should instead focus on what an ageing society can look like.” Mr Lefebvre adds that older residents need to be seen as citizens with much to offer rather than a burden: “older people are residents of the city before anything else, and it is important that they feel like they belong not ‘because of’ or 'despite’ their age but ‘with’ their age.”

Learning from older citizens

Co-operation between elected officials, professionals working for the city, and the elderly themselves—either directly or through their own organisations—is essential in creating successful policy. In practice, this can be simple; for example, groups in Dijon and Rennes have co-ordinated to identify the best locations to position benches to encourage older walkers. More broadly, the process involves ongoing stakeholder consultation between older residents, politicians, civil servants, infrastructure professionals and other interested parties.

Such efforts need to begin with learning from older citizens, so that those involved understand the actual, rather than presumed, situation on the ground. Ms Philipona explains that such a bottom-up, consultative approach is essential in overcoming “the stereotypes around this age group, and to ensure that the reality lived by these residents is at the heart of the debate.”

Ms Philipona notes that keeping up such dialogue over the long term “is one of the most common difficulties” in maintaining age-friendly policies. She adds that French cities have used councils of older residents as a way to promote such continuing consultation.

“There is not one state of being old but many; each has to be understood with its own specific characteristics.”

Irina Ionita

Policy requires integration

Policies in response to ageing must become a multi-stakeholder concern. Mr Martinoni explains that often responsibility for developing a strategy is given to those in charge of the city's social policy. “This may be necessary at the beginning, but the risk is that all the plans remain within the domain of social policy and other departments do not think about it.”

Moreover, policy requires integration. Ms Ionita points out that in Geneva, projects to improve accommodation or transport for senior citizens involve working not just with builders but with city heritage officers, because the buildings and areas involved may be of historic importance.

Geneva’s current five-year ageing policy has seven priority areas such as mobility and physical accessibility, housing, social recognition of the elderly in society and fighting against isolation and social exclusion. These matters are being pursued interdependently under an interdepartmental committee. To provide further coherence, the city is considering the appointment of a single delegate for older people to act as an interface between the public and government on these issues.

Finally, successful policies for ageing populations must consider both the young and old. Age-friendly environments with better pedestrian routes and safer streets can benefit all. Mr Martinoni explains that “the urban environment is linked to the social one. If young families, for example, think that older people are taking all the city’s resources for their needs, the compromises required for urban policies will be more difficult to find.” Instead, Mr Lefebvre explains that urban policies around ageing need to be a crucial part of a broader effort “to build an environment that responds to the needs of residents of all ages.”

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“The urban environment is linked to the social one.”

Marcello Martinoni