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Cities look different to older people.
Metro stations are only pleasant if they have a functioning escalator and reaching the platform doesn’t require the help of a passing stranger. The best parks are those with exercise equipment suited for older bodies; the friendliest neighborhoods are those with smooth sidewalks.
Those aren’t details most working-age people pay attention to as they move about cities — and yet they make a world of difference to an older demographic. As Europe’s population ages, they will also be key factors that determine a city’s livability.
In 2021, more than 20 percent of the bloc’s population was aged 65 and over, making it the oldest continent in the world. By 2050, almost one in three of the EU’s citizens will be part of that age group.
That represents a major challenge for EU cities that currently lack the services and infrastructure to accommodate the needs of older people.
“COVID has been a wakeup call for cities because it forced them to pay attention to the elderly, the group that was most vulnerable in the pandemic,” said Kira Fortune, regional adviser at the World Health Organization’s Healthy Cities network, a global initiative promoting policies that improve well-being in urban landscapes.
“Local leaders are now realizing that they need to work with urban planners and revise public policy so that these people aren’t left behind.”
The most urgent changes are often the most mundane.
“Sidewalks need to be taken care of and potholes have to be repaired,” as a minor fall can have serious consequences for an older person, Fortune pointed out.
Making cities friendlier to navigate for older people also means investing in infrastructure “like benches on which older adults can rest while strolling,” she added.
Some EU cities are already implementing innovative tactics to make streets more welcoming for older people. Breda, in the Netherlands, used machinery to smooth the cobblestones in its medieval quarter, for example, to make the neighborhood more accessible for elderly and disabled residents.
Others have focused on mobility. Last week Lisbon announced that residents over the age of the 65 would no longer have to pay to access the subway system, public buses, most rail lines and the city’s iconic yellow tram network.
The WHO’s Fortune said that measures that give easy access to transport are key to keeping older people active and engaged in public life.
“We should certainly make buses and trams easy to use for older people but also follow the example of places like London, which has sought to encourage active mobility with bicycling initiatives targeting this group,” she said.
Independent but not alone
One of the biggest challenges for EU cities is housing aging urbanites who don’t want to spend their golden years in retirement homes but are at risk of becoming isolated.
“Older adults now don’t want to be like their parents — they’re determined to stay self-sufficient,” said Fortune. “That doesn’t mean they want to live on their own: There’s a lot of interest in communal living.”
In Ljubljana, city authorities are trying to satisfy that desire by reserving public housing units for older people.
Simona Topolinjak, Ljubljana’s undersecretary for health and social care, said the city has also set up a scheme in which older adults can sell their flats to the city’s housing authority in return for a monthly rental stipend and the right to stay in that lodging for the rest of their lives.
“We want the elderly to have the right to take decisions regarding where and how they want to live in their advanced years,” said Topolinjak.
In the Italian city of Udine, where over-65-year-olds make up 27 percent of the population, local leaders say their goal is to allow older people to live independently without feeling alone.
“Most of our older residents are women who live on their own and we’re sensitive to the fact that loneliness can contribute to health problems like dementia,” said Stefania Pascut, who coordinates Udine’s Healthy Cities project. “We’ve created a series of relief structures to make sure someone is checking in on those people and helping them with things like shopping or making small repairs at home.”
The city has also set up a host of public activities like art classes and open-air exercise sessions to get older residents out of their homes and into contact with others.
“Sometimes we forget that elderly people like to have fun, too,” said Pascut. “By offering them the opportunity to carry out playful activities we let them experience the city more fully while keeping them moving, which is great for their health.”
Seat at the table
Although the older generation is one of the EU’s most active voting blocs, their specific needs are often overlooked in the policymaking process.
A growing number of EU cities are now creating elderly advisory boards to give older citizens a voice in local legislation and urban planning.
“There’s an increasing recognition that older adults need to have a seat at the table,” said Fortune. “Decisions can’t just be taken by experts.”
Pascut from Udine said allowing older people to play an active role in public life has become more important since the pandemic.
“Unfortunately a strange sort of discrimination arose as a result of the lockdowns,” she said. “Many young people started resenting the elderly and blaming them for the restrictions on movement and everything else.”
Pascut is looking to fight that trend with schemes that encourage the generations to interact, like a volunteer program for older people in local schools and a youth-led initiative to teach digital literacy to seniors.
“Because we’re living long, it’s the first time in history that we have so many generations sharing our cities, but paradoxically the different age groups don’t tend to mix,” she said.
“We’re trying to change that because the interactions are mutually beneficial: Older adults feel joy when encountering the young, and the young gain access to the seniors’ experiences and traditional knowledge, and see examples of people who are aging well,” Pascut added.
Fortune argues that building age-friendly cities won’t only benefit older people but, over the long term, also benefit younger generations as they age.
Achieving that goal also requires investments that go beyond immediate relief to the older population and address deeper systemic inequalities that affect how people age.
“Targeting poverty early on can make a huge difference in terms of a person’s health in later life,” she said — particularly for women who tend to live longer than men.
“We need to make sure to address these issues at the points in life when people are most vulnerable because those inequalities accumulate and are harder to address later on.”
Giovanna Coi contributed reporting to this article.
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