ARCHIVES: This is legacy content from before Sustainable Cities Collective was relaunched as Smart Cities Dive in early 2017. Some information, such as publication dates or images, may not have migrated over. For the latest in smart city news, check out the new Smart Cities Dive site or sign up for our daily newsletter.

Preparing Cities for Seniors

Since the Global Urban Shift of 2008, much has been discussed about the implications of an increasingly urban planet.  Likewise, in 2011 there was a lot of debate as to the capacity of the Earth to absorb future population growth, having surpassed seven billion people already.  By 2050, the global population is expected to surpass nine billion people; of those, seven out of ten persons will likely reside in an urban setting.[1]  Obviously, future urbanization and population growth, in general, are issues that must be addressed at all levels of government (that is, local, national, and international).  

However, included within the latter projections is another great demographic shift, one that will require special attention at the local/city level.  The Senior Tsunami, as it has been called, will affect every part of the globe and urban areas in particular.  That, is because people over sixty years old are expected to account for almost a quarter of the world's population by mid-century and studies show that the proportion of seniors choosing to live in cities is rapidly growing.[2]  Explanations for senior migration to urban centers range from a desire to escape isolated suburban homes, the attraction of car-free living in old-age, a preference for smaller dwellings that require less maintenance, and increased financial security for seniors on fixed incomes. 

Whatever the explanation, the trend is a positive one for older adults (who stand to benefit much from increased social interaction, physical activity, and entertainment options) as well as for cities (which stand to benefit from increased intergenerational understanding, larger consumer and tax bases, and the paid and volunteer work of older residents in local economies).  The result is a more healthy, inclusive, and sustainable urban social environment.  The migration of seniors from non-urban to urban communities, combined with the ageing of current urban populations, however, also presents a serious challenge for cities.  

The World Health Organization, among others, has recognized the need for cities to prepare for an ageing population and in 2010 created the Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities.  The goals of the Network are: 1) to provide technical support and training, 2) link cities to the WHO and each other, 3) facilitate the exchange of information and best practices, and 4) ensure that interventions taken to improve the lives of older people are appropriate, sustainable, and cost-effective.[3]  The first city to apply for membership in the Network was New York.  Since then, the WHO has been swamped with interested applicants.


In 2007, the WHO published Global Age-Friendly Cities: A Guide, which the organization says was aimed at urban planners specifically.   The guide provides a framework for assessing the "age-friendliness" of a city.  While the contents of the guide are mostly logical, it is important for planners to read the document and consider its content every time they propose interventions in the urban environment.  To illustrate why it is important to reconsider the urban environment in an ageing society, here is a recent experience that caused me to pause and reevaluate my own notions of good urbanism.


A few months ago, I attended a public hearing organized by the City of Boston to invite comments and/or concerns about the future development of the Fenway Cultural District.   The Fenway, a neighborhood rich in prestigious medical, academic, and cultural institutions was recently designated a Massachusetts cultural district.  The designation is certain to be a boon for even more development in an already desirable locale.  


The meeting, presided over by three Boston City Councilors, attracted at least sixty individuals representing local residents, universities, community organizations, and businesses.  One after another, attendees voiced support for the cultural district designation and expressed optimism about implications for the future of the neighborhood and the City of Boston.

However, it was the lone dissenting voice at the hearing that caused me (and perhaps others in attendance as well) to pause and reconsider how the planned "beautification" of the area might affect different populations.

The dissenting voice was that of Mr. John Kelley, a wheelchair-bound senior citizen who advocates for the needs of Boston's elderly and handicapped residents.   Mr. Kelley was concerned about the city's plans to repave old sidewalks with brick.   

Now, I am a recent transplant to Boston from Los Angeles, so I must admit that the brick-paved sidewalks of the walking city were one of the first features I decided I preferred to the concrete slabs of the city of angels.   Of course, I never considered the challenge that old brick walkways posed for seniors or others who require wheelchairs or walkers to get around on a daily basis.  Mr. Kelley talked at length about the dangerous routes that some seniors must navigate because they are unable to use brick sidewalks that are in poor states of repair.  For instance, he is often forced to travel on the street next to moving vehicles because his wheelchair cannot traverse the worst brick sidewalks.   Certainly, these types of horrid urban experiences do not exemplify the attributes of an inclusive or age-friendly city.

My purpose, however, is not to signal The End of Brick in city building or claim that well-designed sidewalks are the most important aspect of creating age-friendly urban environments.  Rather, my purpose is to remind current and future city planners that some features of the built environment may affect different populations in very different ways.  What may represent a traditional aesthetic detail of New England city planning to a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student, may also represent a terrifying obstacle course between home and the grocery store for a senior citizen in a wheelchair.

Each year the World Health Organization chooses to focus international attention on a key issue in global public health.  This priority area of concern serves as the theme for World Health Day (celebrated annually on April 7th to commemorate the founding of the WHO and to create awareness of an important topic in global health).  In 2012 the theme of World Health Day will be "Ageing and Health."  Because the vast majority of seniors in the near future will live and age in urban centers, there is no better time than now to begin preparing our cities for the Senior Tsunami. 


[1] From World Health Organization website on 12 January 2012.

[2] Global Age-Friendly Cities: A Guide.  World Health Organization, 2007.

[3] From World Health Organization website on 12 January 2012.