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The doubling of the average western lifespan in the 20th century was a direct result of modernity. The technologies, medicines and machinery that emerged caused an unprecedented shift in demographics – that doubling was accompanied by a halving of the birth rate – which has radically altered the way we perceive society, the future and its funding. But, perhaps surprisingly, our cities have changed very little.

London’s skyline might be undergoing radical change, yet the majority of us still live in old homes and the UK capital’s are among the oldest and most dilapidated in Europe. With the exception of electronics and the expanding fruits of the digital revolution (many of which have passed older people by), the landscape of the everyday would be recognisable to a visitor from a century ago.

The question, then, is whether London’s landscape should look different now that it needs to accommodate many more older people, and how might it change? The question, of course, is impossible to answer because the ageing population is so diverse. It spans fit 65-year-olds, the wheelchair-bound and dementia sufferers. The modern metropolis must be capable of embracing the widest possible range of needs. There is no “average” 75-year-old. So who are architects and planners designing for?

When we think of design for ageing populations we tend to think of accessibility: level surfaces, ramps, automatic doors, disabled toilets, the institutional landscape of the hospital or the residential home is now part of the required planning repertoire. It might look like an unappealing urban future, but in fact this could be a huge misinterpretation. If everything is easy, level and accessible with minimum effort, how can cities play their part in keeping ageing populations fit? It now seems that the suburbs and the malls – the places made possible by a low-cost fossil-fuel economy that allowed people to step into a car in their garage and directly out into a lift at their destination – have been a disaster, not only for the sense of community (the lack of which particularly affects older people) and of public space but also in terms of fitness. They have led to lazy, overweight populations – a potential healthcare apocalypse.

In 2007, the World Health Organisation launched an ambitious programme of “age-friendly cities”, which its manifesto says, encourages “active ageing by optimising opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age”. The point is to build cities that facilitate and promote walking, that have public spaces from generous pavements to parks and squares, that combine the opportunity to walk, jog, run, swim, cycle, perhaps even to ski or skateboard (why not?) with a place that can accommodate the less physically able. It also means making places that encourage social interaction, which our suburban and exurban developments have failed to do.

For many years, the London model was that younger people would live in the city but move to the suburbs for better houses and schools when they had families. The elderly might then move from suburb to seaside, house to bungalow. Yet for both physical and mental health, this is the worst choice. Moving away from friends and family causes loneliness, a problem destined to be one of the scourges of increasingly elderly populations.

What we might be seeing now is a tendency for older people to move back to the city. With more money and time they may be able to enjoy the city in a way they couldn’t when they were younger and busier. Currently, only 1 per cent of UK retirees live in retirement accommodation; in the US and Australia the figure is 17-22 per cent.

We are already seeing a new sector emerging catering to the well-off elderly with considered, elegant, architecturally designed houses and apartments that come with the facilities for care. Unlike the institutional housing we are used to, this will be luxurious and urbane, following patterns set in Belgium and the Netherlands. British developer PegasusLife is commissioning young architecture practices to design retirement housing at sites in Westminster and Hampstead. These are top-end apartments in prestigious locations, with nothing to indicate that they are retirement homes except the discreet provision of on-site nursing.

A very successful built example is Saxon Court and Roseberry Mansions at King’s Cross. This elegant, brick-clad apartment tower (designed by Maccreanor Lavington) includes a wing for older residents, with on-site care. Social rented, private and older people’s accommodation are contained within one development, removing stigma while ensuring a generational and social mix.

The ideal for the contemporary city is to allow independence for as long as possible – what is known as “ageing in place”. There is not just a social but also a financial imperative for keeping older people in the city as increasingly active participants in the economic life of the city. London traditionally has done this less well than other European cities – think of the Mediterranean idyll of the old folk sitting in squares or outside their houses, chatting, keeping an eye on the streets. London was never really like that. It is partly climate, partly temperament. There is no reason it cannot change.

Spaces for ageing need to be designed for encounter and conversation, not merely movement, transaction and investment. Public places need areas to sit without the obligation to consume. The city needs vitality and beauty, places to walk and places to rest, central shops and public transport that is accessible and integrated. It needs streets that are easy and places that are more challenging. Does that sound good? The whole point of the transgenerational city is that it works for everyone.


Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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