Ideasroom

Smart cities are age-friendly cities

For our cities to be smart, they'll have to cater for our rapidly-ageing population, writes the University of Auckland's Claire Dale 

In response to the recent article by Jamie Morton in the NZ Herald 'Auckland smartens up its thinking', which outlined our smart city potential, I’d like to raise an issue not being addressed. This is the urgent need for New Zealand’s cities to be made age-friendly.

Over summer I co-supervised a University of Auckland Summer Scholar research paper by undergraduate student Nancy Chen that looked at ways of creating age-friendly environments. What follows are some of the findings.

‘Age-friendly’ means having services and structures that meet the needs of whole communities, and are inclusive of our ageing population. It means providing environments that are able to adjust to the loss of function and other adversities that we experience at different stages of our lives, but particularly in our later years.

New Zealand, like most of the rest of world, is undergoing a demographic shift that will result in almost a quarter of our population being older than 60 within the next 30 years. This will include me if I’m lucky enough to live that long. The main reasons for this shift are a decline in our fertility rates and an increase in our life expectancy.

Currently in New Zealand life expectancy at birth is 83.2 years for females and 79.5 years for males (2018 census). For Māori females, life expectancy at birth is 77.1 years and 73.0 years for Māori males. Although there is still a significant gap between life expectancy for Māori and non-Māori, the general trend is an increase in life expectancy.

Most people would agree that it is desirable to live longer, but this does not necessarily mean living well. While declining physical health leading to death is inevitable, and a decrease in mental capacity is likely, we all want our journey there, at the very least, to be humane.

It’s also vital to remember that ageing is not just a biomedical event and older people are not a single uniform group. We all know examples of an 80-year-old who is fit and active and a middle-aged person who is not. Individuals experience older age differently depending on their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, socio-economic background, health, education and their own perception of what constitutes older age.

New Zealand, like many other countries, promotes a policy of ‘ageing in place’. This means supporting people to live at home for as long as possible. Continuing to live at home can be more difficult for those who live in isolated rural areas with relatively high economic deprivation than for those who live in urban areas with pre-existing infrastructure that can be developed more easily to become age-friendly.

With more than 80 percent of New Zealanders now living in an urban area the reality is that preparing our main centres to be age-friendly will have the biggest impact.

There are many approaches to creating age-friendly environments that range from improving physical infrastructure such as buildings, footpaths and public transport to an emphasis on the quality of social relations that promote social participation.

The World Health Organisation’s Global Age-Friendly Cities and Communities (AFCC) Project, with a membership of more than 600 cities, focuses on age-friendliness as one of the most effective policy approaches for responding to demographic ageing.

In line with WHO’s AFCC model, New Zealand’s Health of Older People Strategy (2002) renamed the Healthy Ageing Strategy in 2016, states that an ideal community is one in which “older people live well, age well, and have a respectful end of life in age-friendly communities”.

There is an international consensus that partnerships between local authorities, public health professionals, academics, designers, architects, community and voluntary support organisations, and older people themselves are a crucial dimension to building age-friendly communities.

On July 10, 2018, the Environment and Community Committee of Auckland City resolved to join the World Health Organisation Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities. Membership of that global network requires more than just an announcement in the media. In late April 2019 Auckland Council announced meetings to be held in Howick and Franklin to discuss how outcomes could be improved for older Aucklanders.

A truly smart city is age-friendly. And ‘age-friendly communities’ are better for all ages. We need to start creating our age-friendly environments now as the cost of falling behind in preparing for and supporting an ageing population is too great to ignore.

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