Habitat III offers an opportunity to build an inclusive, caring society

By focusing on issues of housing, transportation and social connectedness in ways that help older adults, the New Urban Agenda will result in better cities for everyone.

A Gurung woman with her grandchild, Nepal. (Paul Prescott/Shutterstock)

Change is in the air. Demographic changes around the world have been a driving force in the global economy. I believe these new demographic realities should also be a driving force in developing a New Urban Agenda, the urbanization strategy that will come out of this year’s Habitat III conference.

I am pleased that the Habitat III General Assembly of Partners has added a group on older persons. People are living longer. By 2050, there will be as many people in the world over the age of 60 as those younger than 15, according to the United Nations. That new reality challenges each of us to look through the lens of vulnerable older adults and to take action to help improve their quality of life. When we do that, we are helping people across all generations and we are building stronger communities.

For me, this demographic change represents an opportunity, not a crisis. It’s an opportunity to build strong, cohesive, inclusive, caring societies, with vibrant urban areas that meet the needs of people of all ages. Communities are healthiest when they take care of all their members, of any age. Promoting greater mobility inside and outside the home is important not only for older adults but for people of all ages.

[See: Present and future: Habitat III must acknowledge young people’s role in shaping our cities]

To seize this opportunity, however, we have to move beyond frozen assumptions and stereotypes about older people. We need to pay closer attention to the built environment as well as the social environment. We need to place special emphasis on the circumstances of low-income individuals, who are so often unseen and unheard.

Fair treatment of those at the low end of the economic scale must be an unwavering focus for developed and developing nations alike. What happened in the U. S. city of Flint, Michigan, where drinking water was recently found to be extremely unsafe, is unacceptable.

The Flint tragedy is fresh evidence of what can occur when the voices of vulnerable populations are left out. We have to face such issues of injustice openly wherever they are found, and we must address these damaging inequities as part of a plan to improve the quality of life for urban residents in every country.

[See: Achieving inclusiveness: The challenge and potential of informal settlements]

Each of us deserves safe, affordable and accessible housing; transportation that enables us to reach jobs, services, family and friends; and networks through which we can engage in activities that enrich our lives.

Housing as linchpin

Housing is the linchpin of well-being, both for the individuals in a community and for the community itself. Surveys conducted by AARP have found that the overwhelming majority of Americans, for instance, want to age in place — to stay independent and in their own homes.

“The Habitat III process offers an opportunity to turn the change in the air into something tangible and positive. With careful attention to the built and social environment, we can create communities that meet the needs of people of all ages.”

When older adults are able to do so, the advantages multiply. Quality of life improves for those older adults. Both individuals and governments realize cost savings when institutional care is avoided. Communities benefit from intergenerational engagement.

To accommodate longer lifespans and the desire to live independently at home, we need to make homes more accessible to people of all ages and abilities. In the United States, only 1 percent of the housing stock has all five of the features and retrofits we recommend for accessibility.

[See: Homelessness is not just about housing — it’s a human rights failure]

Technological innovation will play a critical role in helping people age in place. In order to facilitate this process, our AARP Foundation Prize has been helping to promote innovation in the aging arena for more than four years. Last year we awarded this prize to a technology that uses a system of low-frequency radio waves — a tiny fraction the strength of home wireless Internet connections — to monitor where a person is and his or her gait, breathing and heart rate, and to tell within 60 seconds when that person has fallen, all without the use of sensors.

Another promising initiative for aging at home is a Johns Hopkins University program called CAPABLE, which stands for Community Aging in Place, Advancing Better Living for Elders.

CAPABLE brings a community approach to caring for low-income elderly. A nurse and an occupational therapist check on the senior’s vital signs and mobility. A repairperson works to make sure there are handrails, smooth flooring and other home features that can prevent falls.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

This approach reflects an important point for the drafting of the New Urban Agenda: We need to get beyond compartmentalized thinking that impedes innovation. If we are going to help people age in place, we need to step out of the silos that so often separate health care and housing. We need to advance solutions centred on housing plus services.

As cities develop plans to meet the housing needs of their populaces, they should ensure a mix of housing types that work for people across all income levels and across the lifespan.

Transportation as placemaking

As we live longer, more and more of us will be outliving our driving years, in many cases by decades. I believe a smart urban policy will reduce dependence on autos, a move that also will bring substantial environmental benefits. Better options for transportation that help older adults can help everyone.

U. S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said it well: “Transportation can do more than simply take us from where we live to someplace else that may be better. It is place-making. It can make the doorstep a better doorstep.”

[See: After hosting ‘ecomobility’ festival, cars are back but less loved in Suwon]

We need to make sure there are viable alternatives to cars. We also need to spur the development of driverless vehicles, which are especially important for older adults who no longer can get behind the wheel.

Transit-oriented development is a central component of livable cities. Communities should be designed in ways that enable older adults to access the services they need, including public transportation systems that make it easier for older adults to get on or off a bus or train.

We also need to pay much greater attention to pedestrian safety and convenience. Older adults suffer disproportionately from accidents involving pedestrians. A New Urban Agenda must set out steps to reduce accidents that kill or injure pedestrians.

[See: How Adelaide revitalized itself through ‘placemaking’]

Promoting greater mobility and safety is an imperative for people of all ages. A curb cut in a sidewalk accommodates not only a wheelchair but also an infant stroller. Streets and sidewalks that are safer for seniors are safer for everyone.

Gateway of social connection

The final element of a New Urban Agenda should be social connectedness. This is a basic human need, yet one that is so often overlooked. It can be a gateway to basic services and to a more fulfilling life.

While it is not as tangible as a handrail or a curb cut, staying socially connected can touch people’s lives in profound ways. It can bring people together across generational lines. It can provide a vital link to those who have been forgotten. And it can ensure that the voices of those who are too often ignored are heard.

[See: Habitat III can revolutionize urban thinking on health and well-being]

We need to be aware of and explicit about the importance of social connectedness in the New Urban Agenda. At AARP Foundation, social isolation is a major focus. One in five older adults is at serious risk for isolation. Studies show that feeling lonely and socially disconnected leads to a host of health problems. The mortality risk is three times higher for older adults who are socially disconnected.

Social connections are the lifeblood of cities. Let’s make urban areas places that meet people’s needs, spark their curiosity and support their engagement with others.

An inclusive, caring society is within our reach through the collective impact of our combined actions. The Habitat III process offers an opportunity to turn the change in the air into something tangible and positive. With careful attention to the built and social environment, we can create communities that meet the needs of people of all ages.

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