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Growing old in the city: age-friendly environments are needed to create ‎sustainable and smart cities for all ages

The UNECE region is at the forefront of population ageing with rising numbers of people growing old in cities. If at the turn of 21st century just below 14 per cent of urban population in Europe were 65+, they accounted for 16.8 per cent in 2015 and in North America, the proportion of 65+ among urban population increased from 12 per cent to 14.3 per cent, respectively (based on UN Population Division estimates, 2015).

As many city environments are still designed to support an able-bodied working population, older people risk being excluded from the social and economic life of the city, especially when they lose functional ability. Age-friendly urban environments are therefore essential to enable a good quality of life across the life course, including the ability to age healthy and actively, with dignity, within one’s community.

UNECE’s latest policy brief on ageing therefore puts the spotlight on the important role of local governments and communities in creating sustainable and smart cities for all ages. Focusing on three realms of urban life – housing, access to green spaces and public places, and transport - the brief explores how smart technologies can be leveraged in ways that enhance the quality of life and social inclusion of population groups that risk being left behind as a result of urban planning if new developments are tailored to the young and able-bodied and ignore the prevailing ‘digital divide’ excluding those who either lack the technical ability or socio-economic means to utilize digital services.

The population aged 80+ is the fastest growing age group in Europe’s urban areas - up from 2.8 per cent in 2000 to 4.5 per cent in 2015. Inclusive planning that enhances accessibility of the built environment and services can - if designed holistically - simultaneously benefit several population groups and generations including persons with disabilities, children and families

Smart technologies, as the examples discussed in this brief illustrate, hold significant potential for older persons and persons with disabilities assisting them to live independently in their homes, enhancing their mobility and connection with their communities and can be a valuable tool for social inclusion and healthy ageing.

One example is the ‘functional flat’ concept applied to the Finnish senior home development Wilmankoti that designed 54 rental flats to enhance functionality to support ageing in place. Physical accessibility features include grab bars on all fixtures and wall-hung cupboards in the kitchen, entrance hall and bedroom, as well as a sturdy safety stool designed specifically for seniors. In addition, the toilet and shower facilities of the flats are equipped with a sufficient number of grab bars. The toilet is accessed from the bedroom through a sliding door. The lights in the toilet have motion sensors. The use of home appliances, such as a vacuum cleaner, has been made easier with wall sockets placed 60 cm from the floor. The senior home’s wireless network connection and smart lock system support the production and availability of personalized services, enabling residents to use safety systems if they wish. The model of a comprehensive senior home supports communal living while providing residents with personalized housing in their own flats and creating a safe living environment. In a comprehensive senior home, the forms of housing used by the seniors range from independent renting to palliative care, changing along with the residents’ life situations and service needs. The services change seamlessly without residents having to move out of their home.

Measures to enhance the energy efficiency of buildings in cities – promoted through the UNECE Framework Guidelines for Energy Efficiency Standards in Buildings - also make an important contribution to enhancing thermal comfort that is particularly important for health and well-being of older persons as well as reducing energy bills as “fuel poverty” significantly contributes to anxiety, depression and poor mental health. In the United Kingdom, over 11 million smart meters installed in homes help inhabitants manage their home heating with healthy temperatures.

Several examples in the brief discuss the design of urban transport services. The Polish City of Rzeszów, among others, has modernized its fleet of city buses to make them more environmentally friendly and accessible. New buses with wheelchair space and low floors entered at street level are accessible for older travellers, people with movement, hearing or sight impairments and those with baby strollers or luggage. Buses are fitted with passenger information systems, including monitors and voice prompts, ticket machines and a video monitoring system for safety. As part of Rzeszów’s commitment to investing in renewable technology, the city has been constructing 140 new smart bus shelters. These not only provide a bench and shelter from the weather, they also have solar panels that are continually working to absorb the sun’s energy. Shelters have been adapted for people with reduced mobility and equipped with ticket machines and electronic passenger information systems. The blind and visually impaired can get voice prompts via buttons with Braille or remote controls.

In order to move towards sustainable and smart cities for all ages, this policy brief sets out key recommendations:

Mainstream ageing, gender, disability and human rights considerations in urban planning

To ensure that the design of housing, public and green spaces and transport systems in cities is responsive to the needs of all generations and all levels of ability, it is important to take gender, disability, human rights and ageing considerations into account when planning, designing, implementing and evaluating new city developments.

Involve all generations and stakeholders for people-centred local development planning

Following the principle of “nothing about us without us” it is recommended to engage, consult, design with and for city residents of all ages and abilities to learn about the different needs, preferences and habits of all citizens to ensure that they are not “left behind” through technological developments and urban design that do not cater to their needs.

Avoid working in silos – cooperate across sectors to connect the dots between different realms of city life

Find a synergy between the environmental, economic and social considerations to be taken into account in sustainable urban planning and facilitate developments of projects that are mutually beneficial such as smart housing developments that are energy efficient and connected to public transport, barrier-free and adaptable to the changing needs over the life course, facilitating intergenerational contact and relations. Success will depend on effective cooperation across all sectors, at regional, national and local levels.

Policy Brief No. 24 on Ageing in Sustainable and Smart Cities was prepared by the UNECE Working Group on Ageing within the framework of the UNECE “nexus” approach to leveraging expertise for the SDGs for sustainable and smart cities for all ages. By connecting sectoral expertise and capitalizing on synergies, this approach aims to help countries unlock the interlinked benefits of sustainable development action.

Read also:

UNECE Population Activities

UNECE Working Group on Ageing

United for Smart and Sustainable Cities (United 4SSC)

UNECE Forum of Mayors 2020