Old City, New Tricks

Our cities’ aging populations require new approaches to urban planning.

By Timothy A. Schuler 

In December 2013, a massive ice storm crippled Toronto, killing 27 people and knocking out power for 600,000 Ontario residents. Without electricity, elevators in Toronto’s residential high-rises stopped working, and many elderly people were trapped. “I know that there were elderly women up on the 18th floor in a tower near our office who were trying to make tea on a little gas burner,” recalls Patricia McCarney, the director of the Global Cities Institute (GCI) at the University of Toronto. “The elderly were going between two floors to help each other for four days while they didn’t have power. They were actually having small tea parties up on these high floors! So there is a social capital out there, but if that went on any longer, who’s going to take groceries up to them? Who knows they even live there?”

McCarney’s story illustrates both the vulnerability and resiliency of our cities’ older people, a population that planners and designers of all types must increasingly account for. As the world becomes more urbanized, those urban centers are rapidly aging. In the next 25 years, the number of New Yorkers older than 65—currently 12 percent of the population—is expected to increase by 50 percent. According to a recent GCI report, the number of people in the world over 65 years of age will increase 183 percent by 2050, and according to the AARP, most of those elderly want to age in place rather than move to a traditional retirement community.

But building more “age-friendly” cities will be difficult without reliable city-level data about health care, housing, infrastructure, and other quality-of-life indicators. “City data is often either nonexistent or it’s very weakly constructed,” says McCarney, explaining that global statistics for things like mortality rates are often presented at the country, not city, level. McCarney and her team worked with 20 different cities, including London, Shanghai, Helsinki, Dubai, Boston, and Johannesburg to develop a standardized set of 100 indicators organized around themes like safety, recreation, governance, and urban planning. The result, published in May 2014, was ISO 37120, Sustainable Development of Communities—Indicators for City Services and Quality of Life, the first international standard for city-level data.

A number of the standard’s indicators relate to cities’ aging populations, including statistics on emergency responses, access to health care, and the capacity of a city’s public transportation system, but also access to things like green space, which has been found to encourage walking among seniors. According to the GCI report on aging, walking helps seniors “manage weight, control blood pressure, decrease their risk of heart attack and stroke, and reduce risk of breast cancer and Type 2 diabetes.” Street trees also provide necessary shade for older individuals, who are at greater risk from heat-induced illnesses.

A city’s demographic transformation will require a corresponding evolution in its design. Everything from wider sidewalks to better street lighting to increased public transportation will be needed to accommodate a city’s elderly. “The good thing is that it’s not a zero-sum game,” says Daniel D’Oca, an urban planner at Interboro Partners, who recently taught an interdisciplinary design studio on age-friendly planning at Harvard University‘s Graduate School of Design. “Most of the improvements you would make to make a place more age-friendly are improvements that would benefit everybody.”

And yet some urban environments already are more age-friendly than one might imagine. A majority of D’Oca’s research has focused on the phenomenon of “naturally occurring retirement communities,” or NORCs. Officially recognized in New York City for the first time in 1986, NORCs are unplanned and ad hoc. They often occupy Le Corbusier-like “towers in the park” and other midcentury apartment complexes that were not originally designed for seniors but that over time have become a haven for the elderly. Since 1994, New York State, which has more than 35 NORCs serving 19,000 seniors, has encouraged the development of these “natural” communities by offering a formal designation (a building must be more than 60 percent senior-occupied to qualify) and funding for supportive services.

“If you visit a NORC, there are so many social services. There’s such a tight-knit community. There’s a social worker that checks up on you and makes sure you’re taking your medicine and knows all the seniors in the building and neighborhood. It’s incredible,” D’Oca says. He sees NORCs as an exemplary model for aging in place and encourages city officials elsewhere to do what New York has done. “Find places where seniors are already aging and retrofit those places with the kind of amenities that seniors need,” he says.

In his teaching, however, D’Oca has experienced a resistance to the topic of aging. “Most young people don’t want to think about it,” he says, acknowledging that until we stop separating seniors by putting them in suburban retirement communities and nursing homes, we may not even fully understand the design challenges they present.

McCarney believes any cultural shift will be born out of more necessary economic changes. Cities across the globe are experiencing shrinking dependency ratios, the number of residents in the workforce versus those who are not. “That is a driver for economic change,” she says. “I think that also drives design, and I believe that then drives a cultural awareness. I think it’s up to landscape architects and planners and designers to help [make] aging people in cities less invisible.”

Timothy A. Schuler, the editor of Now, is at timothyaschuler@gmail.com and on Twitter @timothy_schuler.

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