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Age-friendly cities

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As people live longer and urbanization rates grow, more of the elderly will need adaptations to their environments. Most cities, however, do not yet have a cohesive age-friendly planning strategy.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) spoke to Ruth Finkelstein, associate director at the Robert N. Butler Columbia Ageing Center, to find out how cities can cater to the elderly.

EIU: Which countries and regions are most affected by ageing populations and to what extent does this affect cities?

Ruth Finkelstein: The ageing population trend affects all regions in the world, particularly Western Europe, Japan and Scandinavia.

The main driver of this trend is a global improvement in public health, leading to an increase in average life expectancy. This, combined with rising urbanization rates – mainly in developing economies – results in an increasing share of elderly people in cities.

What are some cities doing to put the elderly at the top of the agenda?

Age-friendly planning is not just about the level of investment, but how to invest money and to pre-plan. The idea is to look through the lens of ageing when we plan, build and design cities.

Cities that are ahead of the curve in age-friendly planning are those in Western Europe – particularly Spain, Italy and Germany – Scandinavian countries and Japan. For example, a number of Spanish cities, including Madrid and Valencia, have developed comprehensive city-planning strategies that ensure design works for people of all ages and levels of ability (including both the able-bodied and the disabled).

Putting age-friendly design at the heart of city planning means that these cities won’t have to go through the costly process of retro-fitting and modifying existing facilities.

Similarly, the workplace is a good example of an area that would have many wider benefits for society, if optimized for an ageing workforce. BMW, a German car manufacturer, has taken the lead in adapting its work processes to older employees. Its factories include updated facilities such as ergonomic back supports for employees, mobile tool trolleys to prevent straining for tools and improved lighting for the visually impaired.

Who should be taking the lead on developing age-friendly city planning – governments, businesses or citizens themselves?

I don’t believe age-friendly planning initiatives should be driven from central government alone, it really has to be a partnership between those involved. Businesses ought to be leaders, not just in redesigning workplaces, but also in improving urban environments – and it is in their interest to do so. The elderly are much more likely to use local amenities such as shops and cultural sites in an environment they perceive as age-friendly.

Local governments must also have a hand in planning, as most of the design of streets, sidewalks, transportation systems and public works occurs at the local level. Similarly, if older citizens themselves don't press governments for change, policymakers will miss the boat.

What challenges do you foresee in the implementation of new approaches to age-friendly planning?

The challenges are enormous. There's a technical administrative challenge associated with getting separate entities to collaborate for a mission that cuts across sectors.

Political will is another major issue. This has to do with how society views older adults, and the stereotypes that prevent us from seeing the value that age-friendly planning can have towards the whole community. An active elderly population can expand a city’s workforce and benefit the local economy, while giving elderly people adequate access to shops and amenities, for example, can add to the vibrancy of an area.

Changing our thinking now can enable us all to extend our active lives in the community.

This interview is part of a series managed by The Economist Intelligence Unit for AkzoNobel.