Growing old in the city

New ‘Public Age’ competition calls for ideas on how to make city living better for everyone

Old age is one of those things we should all wish for, though few genuinely welcome it. In one of those life-stages clichés that can cause great misery for those who don’t think about the ramifications, you are said to move to cities in your youth, migrate to the suburbs to raise your family and then retire to the countryside.

But why? Surely when your working life is done and you finally have the time and, hopefully the money, to enjoy more leisure, wouldn’t you prefer to have cinemas, shops, cafés, the theatre, concerts and a choice of neighbours, all within walking distance. If circumstances mean you are no longer able to drive, wouldn’t you prefer to remain mobile and independent? To be near hospitals and more specialist healthcare amenities? The rural idyll is bliss – for those with health and strength, but towns and cities make sense for older people. Except that they don’t.

Most of our urban centres are muddles of compromise between existing buildings and traffic routes and new development, between commerce and community, residential needs and sheer practicality. And yet the question remains: whose practicality holds greater sway. Driving down Cork Street in Dublin, I stopped at a set of pedestrian lights to let a man cross. Aided by his walking frame, he was barely half way over when the green light started flashing. So whose needs win? The traffic planners attempting to clear gridlock or the people who make the city their home, but who may walk more slowly?

According to a report from the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland (CARDI), we can expect the 65-plus age group to make up almost a quarter of the population by 2041. In Ireland, almost 20 per cent of those between 65 and 69 have a disability, rising to two thirds of those aged 85 and over. As our society ages, we need to reconsider how our towns and cities function. So what does that mean for urban design?


Judging from the literature, a great deal of thought, or more accurately a great many focus groups and mission statements have been dedicated to the question. Read them and you could start to believe that we already live in a country with smooth pavements uncluttered with poles and signage, plenty of public seating, clean, safe and accessible public toilets, wheelchair access to pavements and public buildings, and an environment that is nonthreatening to those unequipped with ninja capabilities.

In 2006, the World Health Organisation (WHO) created the Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities initiative. Louth was the first county in Ireland to sign up in 2009. Dublin's Age Friendly strategy launched in 2014 and, by 2015 every local authority in Ireland had adopted the WHO programme. But do you see it on the streets?

Urban improvements

A great deal of what is being called for is simply a set of urban improvements. It doesn’t matter whether you’re elderly, disabled, pushing a buggy or carrying lots of bags, accessible buildings, better housing, public transport and other urban infrastructure are obvious needs. Ditto visible, effective policing, street lighting, safe seating, and for anyone who doesn’t have a cast iron bladder, public toilets. The current cop-out leaving that to shops, cafés and pubs is unfair to both providers and users.

Considering the question of budgets to pay for all this, there’s an obvious trade-off. Yes, it costs more to put in good public seating and keep it safe, but think of the costs to the health system of older people not getting out and about, facing the problems surrounding isolation and mental health, or lack of exercise and physical health. Change the design focus of our public spaces to embrace the principles of Universal Design (design that can be understood, accessed and used by everyone), and ageing becomes less of a problem and more of a life stage that we will all come to and, with some design help, perhaps enjoy.

Alongside this, there are other, less obvious needs and there's plenty of space for innovative thinking. In Lisbon, a housing complex by Guedes Cruz architects has light-up roofs to illuminate the streets, which glow red if a resident needs help. In Lyon, the Cyclopousse rickshaw system, with specially trained operators, brings older people about the place; and Østengen & Bergo's walkway in Oslo connects different areas of the city with gentle ramps and plenty of seating.

Public Age project

Now it's time to get thinking in Ireland. The Irish Architecture Foundation (IAF), in association with the Arts Office of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, and the Health Service Executive have put together a call for proposals to look at, and do something with our public spaces. The "Public Age" project is multidisciplinary (though architect-led) and offers €20,000 to the chosen team to create "something imaginative and memorable to highlight the importance of inclusive public space" in 2017.

The initiative builds on previous projects by the council’s arts office, working with older people on music, dance and art curation projects. As Máire Davey from the arts office says, “we have one of the fastest ageing populations in the country but access to public space is an issue that affects everyone. We’ve deliberately left the call open, to see what different disciplines can come together to propose.”

The IAF are also partnering with CREATE (the National Development Agency for Collaborative Arts) and Bealtaine (the organisation that promotes opportunities for greater participation by older people in society), to plan a conference in May 2017 exploring these issues. Director Nathalie Weadick says that it's an opportunity to engage with a section of society that is overlooked.

“We see Public Age not as an end goal in itself, although it has amazing potential there, but as the beginning or continuation of research and engagement with a really important aspect of design and architecture. I hope something comes out of this that can be developed to make a difference.

“This isn’t about ‘other people’,” she adds, “it’s everyone.” She’s right. Unless you’re there already, or else very unlucky, old age is something that will come to all of us. Put like that way, designing towns to match is simply selfish. It’s time to move beyond the mission statements and start doing.

The deadline for submissions to Public Age is December 2nd. See