Global Age Friendly Cities, Ten Years On.

Now ten years on – 2017, we celebrate the introduction of the Global Age Friendly Cities initiative as presented by the World Health Organization (WHO). The question is, what has “age friendly” become – and for that matter how have cities changed since 2007, while world events have shifted behind us like fast flipping stage scene backdrops to diverse populations adjusting to urban life? The answers to these questions depend of course on what part of the world you live in.

Over the last three years, in some parts of the world, armed conflict, hunger and mass migration have all had an impact on cities, directly or indirectly. And if you look at the faces of the people devastated by all this you could argue that when you live in ugly and difficult times, you are not discriminated against on the basis of your age. Certainly not friendly.

In contrast, in cities and towns far removed from disruptions of this magnitude, on one level you can witness that even these places have differing priorities that occupy a public consciousness, while at the same time, on another level some of these same places have adopted and are getting on with Age Friendly practices. A WHO inspired, Age Friendly World today counts 400 communities in 37 countries, ranging from Canada to Sri Lanka, and France to Japan.

Prepare for changes in how we design cities

Age Friendly as detailed in the WHO Guide has in its framework, eight themes that bind it together with a focus derived from their demographic projections that say, “…the number of people aged 60 and over as a proportion of the global population will double from 11% in 2006 to 22% by 2050.” Given that forecast, along with the ongoing trend of the overall move of populations to urban centres, it stands to reason then, that we need to better prepare for changes in how we design cities.


Without reciting the entire document here, it is worth noting that one of the key principles at the core of all this, is illuminated further by a quote from Bernard Isaacs, Professor of Geriatric Medicine who once said; “Design for the young and you exclude the old; design for the old and you include the young.”

If this quote to some extent inspired the thinking behind the WHO project in 2007, that would be understood and well appreciated. No question, many of the same urban issues, like affordable housing and accessible transportation, are equally as important to young and old. If you were to ask for input from anyone 22, 52 or 82 today, what they would like to see in design features like safe pedestrian crossings, my bet would be that differences in ideas would be next to zero.

Yet what happens when a well-intended concept like Age Friendly Cities gets to work in reality, out in the community, down on the ground? Who owns the project? Who gets included and how is the concept positioned in the messaging and supported in the programming, the community funding?

Large questions I will come back to in another post, but after following the progress of this for several years now, my quick observation is that the Age Friendly concept is too often seen as a “seniors” project with little recognition of the fact that in order to catch the spirit of the game, you must be relevant to everyone.

Everyone is aging – so don’t you want the engagement of people of all ages?

We are all future beneficiaries of age friendly communities – remember, “design for the old and you include the young.” The moment you stick the word seniors or elderly in front of the messaging, (as some cities have done), you have to ask – who are you excluding? I don’t think the original intent was to build Age Friendly as a seniors exclusive vision.

Far from it. The original WHO document rotates around the life-course model and the 2007 document states, that “active ageing is a lifelong process, an age-friendly city is not just “elderly-friendly”.

With no obvious salute to the 10th anniversary on the WHO Age-Friendly web site, there is a webinar coming up on April 25th, 2017 titled “Core Indicators of Age-Friendliness”. It’s in my calendar. After that, it will be time to comment more on how well this has been adapted, in consideration that there are core-urban and sub-urban differences.


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