Updated: Feb 14, 2022
The article below is written by Elsie Haldane (Edited by Vilde Skorpen Wikan) taken from the European Week of Regions and Cities website. View the original here.
‘Older people are outsiders… we are not consulted’: Why we must amplify older voices in Europe’s cities
Many of today’s older people will have seen vast changes in their urban communities over a short period of time. Their lives, along with their surroundings, have changed dramatically, presenting new challenges. Now the EU-funded initiative URBANAGE seeks to ease some of the challenges faced by older people in Europe, by placing their voices in the heart of urban planning.
by Elsie Haldane (Edited by Vilde Skorpen Wikan)
Across the world, over 500 million people aged 65+ and over live in cities, meaning that more than half of all older people on the planet live in urban landscapes. By 2030, this is estimated to be more than 1 billion. Living alongside increased urbanization, older people face a wide range of new difficulties. One of these problems is limited accessibility: older people may not be able to access important buildings, social areas, or essential spaces such as supermarkets. The extent to which they can live their lives fully becomes limited as a result.
As we age, we may also rely more on public transport. Yet bus drivers may refuse to lower the bus to an accessible level, park too far away from the curb, or even jerk away too quickly as passengers are trying to find a seat. This understandably can cause fear amongst older people, limiting their bus use, and therefore their overall ability to travel. These seemingly small challenges may place large restrictions on the life of older people. Inclusive improvement
While it is important to find practical solutions to these everyday obstacles, the truly grave problems emerge from their wider effect. Loneliness is prevalent amongst older people: in 2016, 18 percent of people aged 65 or older in the EU reported feeling frequently lonely, with immigrant and LGBTQ+ populations being even more at risk. This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, with many experiencing isolation from their families or their normal social lives. It is clear that loneliness is also connected to other serious medical conditions such as depression, dementia (which social isolation increases the risk of by about 50 percent), or a rapid decline in physical health.
But some groups are trying to find solutions. The EU-funded initiative URBANAGE seeks to address these issues and create ‘age-friendly cities’, happier environments for Europe’s urban-dwelling older people. The project was presented on 12th October as one of the initiatives discussed during this year’s European Week of Regions and Cities in Brussels. URBANAGE is made up of three pilot areas: Helsinki in Finland; Santander in Spain; and Flanders in Belgium. As we face an aging population across Europe, and in the wake of the pandemic, it is more urgent than ever that the experiences of older people are prioritised in urban planning.
Direct participation While the project hopes to achieve some ambitious changes to urban planning in these cities, its unique element is its methodology. The project has involved older people directly in the discussion, asking what they need by inviting community members to participate in workshops and forums. And it has worked: the project now understands the importance of investing in public transport, as well as maintaining community centres that may be the centres of many people’s social lives. There must also be more public benches for people to rest, as well as more public toilets.
The project also noted that a city that feels more dangerous will discourage older people from venturing outdoors. Dark and secluded areas will not be comfortable living environments for older people. Coordination with the police will help reduce this worry, as well as investing in more public parks and accessible spaces, so that each citizen feels as though they have a place in the community.
A clear focus What members of the project really emphasised, however, was the importance of an inclusive approach to these discussions, in which the lived experiences of older people are listened to and taken seriously. At a time when this group may feel unheard, particularly during the isolating pandemic, this initiative may have increased the confidence of older people.
Yet while it may seem obvious that policy should centre around the lived experiences of the people it will affect, this is often not the case. Often decision-makers may be out of touch or not listen carefully to the citizens. By amplifying their voices, the URBANAGE project has greatly enhanced their research into elderly-friendly urban planning.
Importantly, it has also had a ripple effect in giving older people their own autonomy, confidence, place in the community, and freedom. By putting their perspectives in the center of urban planning it gives them an important voice - they feel seen, heard, and respected - an experience that for many is invaluable.