Aging Populations Research Series, 7: On paradigms and making big changes

To what extent are aging issues embedded in the paradigms through which we plan, build, and develop cities and communities? How can we achieve large-scale changes through more local, targeted actions? This instalment forms part of our research journey into the relationship between aging populations and cities.
by Koko Herder

The last article of this series ultimately posed the question: How can we make people across all fields of urban development aware of age-friendly features (discussed in the last article) so that cities will actually develop in an age-friendly way? It is time that people across different fields – including policy makers, academics, and architects – wrap their heads around this question. For, while aging is becoming increasingly an issue that needs to be addressed, again and again we find that the paradigms by which we plan and develop our cities are not age-inclusive. Yet.

Atlanta city officials Scott Ball and Kathryn Lawler argue in a great article titled ‘Changing Practice and Policy to Move to Scale: A Framework for Age-Friendly Communities Across the United States’ (2014), that large-scale reform is necessary, and that it can be achieved from the ground up. They state that almost all work related to aging issues today is done incrementally and does not yet tackle overarching paradigms, such as those in land use planning, transportation and health care. While local initiatives targeting aging problems may be successful, they only provide solutions to a few. Hence Ball and Lawler argue that local efforts should be considered successful only when they influence change in the paradigms that currently produce less liveable, more age-excluding conditions. Local projects, therefore, must be designed from the outset to create systems-level changes. On a practical level, projects could explicitly communicate which exact laws and urban policies form barriers to the development of more age-friendly localities. By clearly promoting to change these specific laws and policies, large-scale urban transformation can be achieved.

Age-inclusiveness must be incorporated into urban assessment tools (Source: impactdesignhub.org)


When thinking about which projects we can regard as being successful and which we cannot, Chris Landorf, Graham Brewer and Lorraine Sheppard lend insight. They looked at a number of international urban assessment tools and argue in their article ‘The urban environment and sustainable ageing: critical issues and assessment indicators’ (2008) that assessment tools play a critical role in changing overarching paradigms. Often, evaluation reports determine what gets done and what does not. However, the urban assessment tools by which projects get evaluated regularly assess inadequately or do not incorporate social sustainability next to the more common economic and environmental dimensions, let alone that aging is incorporated as a social element of assessment. Assessment tools also tend to focus too narrowly on buildings (think of, for instance, sustainability labels for buildings), leaving out larger-scaled urban public spaces and planning projects. Going back to inadequate assessment, Ball and Lawler give a quite telling example (of something that is not uncommon in project assessments): Think of a meal program that is designed to battle the social isolation of older adults. An assessment program may assess the project on the basis of the number of meals served. Yet the purpose of the project is socialization among older adults. The meals are only a means to a result. Counting the number of meals thus does not say much about the success of the project.


Local work can shape larger aging policies and practices, provided that they aim for systemic change from the outset and are assessed on the basis of their achievement of larger paradigm shifts. Urban assessment tools, furthermore, need to include economic, environmental, and social sustainability dimensions, and especially an element of age-inclusiveness. As Ball and Lawler nicely put it, when the people lead, the leaders will follow.

About the author

Koko Herder

Koko is about to graduate from the research master Urban Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Throughout his studies he has tried to combine planning and urban theory with urban design. Drawing inspiration from urban explorations across the world and being fascinated by everyday urban life, Koko encourages participatory and collaborative planning processes. At CITIES Foundation he now researches the relationship between aging populations and cities.


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