The year 2012 marked the first time in history that the majority of the world population lived in urban areas. Yet cities and towns face a challenge that goes far beyond population growth alone: Not only are urban and suburban areas getting bigger, they are getting older—and at an accelerating rate.
Globally, the population age 60 and over is doubling from 11 percent in 2006 to 22 percent in 2050, when almost 2 billion people will be in their seventh decade of life. The percentage rise among those over 85—an age that is increasingly vulnerable to chronic illness and limits on mobility—is even more dramatic. The pattern in the United States is roughly the same.
This booming older population has much to offer the cultural and economic life of urban areas and all communities. At the same time, it poses a range of challenges that require innovative policies and strategies to optimize quality of life, issues that we should be considering now.
To help communities meet these challenges, AARP in 2012 launched the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities (AFC), in affiliation with the World Health Organization (WHO). The effort, which includes the participation of local governments, AARP volunteers and staff, the business community, and other stakeholders, is highlighting innovative ideas and best practices to help US municipalities adapt to changing demography.
Originally piloted in seven states and the District of Columbia, the AARP network will be expanding to a diverse range of towns, counties, and cities across the United States in 2013. The current membership of 10 communities, including Macon-Bibb, GA, Washington, DC, and Des Moines, IA, will grow to include communities in Kansas, Michigan, Texas, Colorado, Hawaii, and other states.
Each community will have different needs and priorities and thus success will come only when the community, down to the neighborhood level, “owns” the program. Philadelphia may focus on healthy food accessibility in poorer neighborhoods, while Macon may focus on providing innovative transportation links to a dispersed rural population.
By making themselves more “age-friendly,” cities and towns will provide critical support for residents of all ages. Well-maintained sidewalks and clear signage benefit not only older pedestrians with walkers, but young parents pushing strollers. Safe parks and recreational facilities benefit children and their grandparents. Complete streets benefit the increasing number of young adults who choose not to own and drive automobiles, but rely on bicycles and other means of getting around.
Communities that adapt age-friendly features in these, and many other areas, become more desirable places to live, to visit and to spend time. They also reap economic benefits, injecting new vitality into local business, as consumers of all ages feel welcome and secure.
But these benefits are not automatic. While each place has distinct qualities and needs, we believe certain principles can help all places become more age-friendly, whether they are sprawling cities or small towns.
Experience shows that age-friendly change has the most impact when communities:
- Listen to what residents have to say. In New York City, officials
assumed they should always place benches near playgrounds—until they heard from a resident who said she found it peaceful to sit in a more quiet location. Her input added real insight.
- Take a holistic approach. The WHO identified “eight domains of city living” that contribute to a community’s age friendliness. These include access to outdoor spaces and buildings and safe recreational facilities; choices for transportation, housing and health care services; opportunities for social participation, such as cultural, civic and public service activities; and information technologies that help people stay connected, including individuals with impaired mobility.
- As one example, Dan Burden’s Active Living Workshops, conducted in cities around the United States, provide community members a tool to plan holistically to make neighborhoods more secure and enjoyable for all their residents.
- Consider the social, as well as the built, environment. This means not only a region’s buildings and outdoor areas, but its social and civic inclusiveness. To stay connected and avoid isolation, older residents need a social environment that promotes engagement, security and tolerance of people of all ages.
AARP Foundation has learned a lot about combating isolation by studying the Older People’s Association/Active Living Association models developed by HelpAge International in Asian countries.
- Focus on safety and security. Focus on safety and security for older populations, including crime
prevention, mitigating environmental hazards in air and water, etc.
What the many domains of age friendliness share is that they are generally determined at the local level and must reflect local priorities. In the United States, towns, cities and counties are where the real work is done. Yet we know that many localities are only now beginning to grapple with the issues raised by changing demography.
That means local officials and planners have a growing need for good information in an array of areas that contribute to age-friendliness. As one source of information, we recommend http://www.aarp.org/livable
More broadly, through its growing, age-friendly network and connections to the WHO global network and many national age-friendly programs around the world, AARP will serve as a “go-to” resource for communities across America that recognize the significance of population aging and seek strategies to thrive as their demographics change.
Our age-friendly network is designed to encourage a serious commitment on the part of its members. Within two years of joining, a community is expected to establish a citizens’ advisory committee; secure a resolution of support from a local municipal council; complete a plan of action and commit to measuring activities, reviewing outcomes and reporting this information to the public.
Communities that sign up are also admitted to the WHO’s international, age-friendly network, gaining access to a wealth of information and contacts from overseas. The WHO encourages partnerships, including mentor-mentee relationships, and enables member communities to submit their plans to peer review.
Already, AARP’s initiative has met a favorable response from local government officials, planners, and advocates of older Americans. But we believe the goal of making communities age-friendly requires the broadest possible buy-in, and we seek greater engagement with various industries, including tourism and retirement living.
A hotel, restaurant, retail shop, pharmacy—practically any business—can leverage its age friendliness in marketing and even highlight it with a kind of age-friendly seal of approval that attracts new customers—and revenue.
Increasingly, communities shape their long-term economic planning around becoming a “destination,” for vacation travel, retirement living or other consumer spending. In this growing competition, cities and towns that incorporate
age-friendly planning and policies will have a competitive advantage. Older consumers will be drawn to those places that are truly welcoming, accessible, safe and attractive.
AARP is now in the process of finalizing a robust and comprehensive system to monitor, evaluate, encourage, and certify progress towards these goals in our member communities, through the engagement of national experts in the WHO’s eight domains, AARP’s own expert staff and volunteers, and local and regional thought leaders, such as universities, hospitals, and public health institutions.
As with all of our work in livable communities over the past decade and longer, AARP seeks to leverage the lessons learned, so more people can live in comfort and security, in environments that help them remain vital and productive throughout their lives.
We hope that by promoting age-friendly planning and growth, both through our AFC Network and by providing access for communities to other tools and resources developed by top experts in and outside of AARP, we will take meaningful steps toward that goal.
Debra Whitman is AARP’s Executive Vice President for Policy, Strategy and International Affairs. She is an authority on aging issues with extensive experience in national policy making, domestic and international research, and the political process.
She oversees AARP’s Public Policy Institute, Office of Policy Integration, Office of International Affairs and Office of Academic Affairs. She works closely with the Board of Directors and National Policy Council on a broad agenda to develop AARP policy priorities and make life better for older Americans. An economist, she is a strategic thinker whose career has been dedicated to solving problems affecting economic and health security, and other issues related to population aging.