Stations with long flights of stairs; bus stops where there is nowhere to sit; sidewalks pitted with potholes: For older people, it isn’t always easy to see friends or travel to events. At Transport for All, a lot of the people who call our accessible travel advice line hardly ever leave the house. They are deterred by the obstacle course that is the route to the nearest accessible station, the fear of falling if a bus brakes sharply, or the expense of a taxi.

This leaves me longing for a city where all older people can be confident to step out and be visible, rather than hidden away in homes and day centers. It seems as if much of our city infrastructure was planned in an era when questions of access were simply not considered. I won’t retire for a few decades yet, but by the time my knees start to grumble, this needs to be sorted out.

Today’s baby boomers are not going to be content to sit at home and watch TV or knit – they want to be out there!
How can we ensure that older people continue to live full, interesting lives and that people of all ages can participate in the city?

Transport for All asks: What can we do to make cities less lonely for the elderly?

Neil Chambers answers:

Old city – the new paradigm
The current conversation about redesigning cities usually focuses on Boomers or Millennials, two extremes of the age spectrum. However, the largest proportion of people are between 30 and 64 years old. Everyone will eventually be elderly, a reality no one can escape.

We are a global society – more savvy, fashionable, and in-the-know than ever before – and most of us want an urbanized lifestyle, meaning a blend of great food and conversation, tech modernization, access to healthy and alternative life choices, and being at the center of the action. The best cities in the world like New York, Berlin, and Tokyo market themselves as meccas for young, energetic people that promise diversity and innovation. This generates a lack of ideal architecture for people over the age of 65 and shuts the door on them, depriving us of the knowledge, stability, and experience they provide to our civilization.

Century of immigration
Population growth in rich nations will be driven by immigration because first world birth rates have slowed over the last few decades. Many immigrants enjoy multi-generational households; they prefer living among family versus striking out on their own. This is in sharp contrast to major cities branding themselves as future hubs for lone wolf innovators living in little apartments. Small units cannot house a family of three or four, let alone one with grandparents, uncles, and aunts in tow. However, elderly-centric urban design could foster a new paradigm for developments in cities that turn these factors into assets.

The other electric vehicle
Retirement communities integrate golf carts as a primary mode of transportation. In comparison, cities have spent the last decade investing in bicycle access. Imagine incorporating golf carts into bike lanes: This could enhance mobility and reduce air pollution. Electric bikes are already doing this to a certain extent. Golf carts could overtake the growth of bicycle uptake and completely eliminate cars.

Some buildings have already integrated golf carts into their business, e. g. airports that use them to bus travelers to and from gates. Urbanized golf carts could be a huge boost for electric vehicles by creating an entirely new market for personalized electric transportation.

Mixed-use elderly-centric
Elderly-based mixed-use developments could include medical facilities for easy access. A residential tower of 20 to 30 floors would have doctors and dental offices on site. A simple elevator ride would get you to your weekly check-up or the front desk could send up your prescription. Green design would be mandatory, meaning better indoor air quality, energy efficiency, and overall quality of life.

Open and public spaces would be incorporated into the morphology, fostering farmers’ markets and lively plaza life. The big idea is to bring the city to the elderly, thereby reversing the current necessity for older people to use ill-designed infrastructure. These new developments could include food truck parking and community gardens, creating a service for growing trends like local and street food.

Testing it out in NYC
To test this idea, we proposed a project for DUMBO in Brooklyn, one of NYC’s uber-hip neighborhoods. Situated under Manhattan Bridge with views across the East River, old warehouses have become offices and residential units. It is a perfect blend of grit and funk and coffee and industrial ghosts and graffiti. Designers and architects, photographers, actors, and models flock to Water St and the district’s riverfront park. Rarely do you see anyone older than 55 – and nearly never over 65. So, we imagined a design that embraced young and old with buildings that commission graffiti, have ramps for golf carts, and provide a mix for all ages.

Benefits of a higher average age
Lots of people move to cities, but leave shortly after. Young people are transient, while older populations like to grow roots and establish communities. A cultivated sense of community could attract and retain talent, because the big city can be a lonely place, no matter your age. Seniors could help to anchor neighborhoods by keeping the best and brightest from moving away, thus building stronger economies and workforces. Elderly-centric cities make good business and design sense. Cities shouldn’t push such a prized resource as senior citizens out of the picture. Especially, when they could be at the center of it all.

All photos, incl. the header image, by Neil Chambers