Cities for all ages: 3 stories to get inspired

Ania Rok

By Ania Rok, on July 28th, 2016

> Read Ania Rok's articles

We claim to want to build cities for everyone but it seems that not everyone is invited to be part of the conversation. Among many dimensions of exclusion, such as gender, economic status or ethnicity, there is one that is probably the easiest to remedy and yet often forgotten: age.

As Gil Penalosa, former Commissioner for Parks of the City of Bogota (Columbia) and internationally renowned urban expert, famously said: “We have to stop building cities as if everyone is 30 years-old and athletic“. The challenge he posed to urban planners worldwide was to create cities in which both 8-year olds and 80-year olds can move about safely and enjoyably.
To respond to this challenge, urban planners need to find the way to talk to both the youngest and the oldest citizens of their cities. How do you do that?

Never waste a good… demographic shift!

European societies are aging at an unprecendented pace. Eurostat projections estimate that the share of EU citizens aged over 65 will increase from 18.5% in 2014 to 28.7%. In the last years a number of initiatives have emerged to help cities prepare for this demographic shift. Networks such as World Health Organization (WHO)’s Age-friendly Cities or the EU Covenant on Demographic Change help galvanise political commitment and offer concrete ideas on how to build more accessible cities.

The EU Covenant on Demographic Change, launched in December 2015, brings together over 120 members from across Europe committed to promoting age-friendly environments. Markku Markkula, the President of the Committee of the Regions, strongly supported the initiative, acknowledging that “ageing and the demographic change in Europe cause a profound shift in our towns, cities and regions; affecting policies, infrastructure and services”. According to Markkula, this shift represents both a challenge and an opportunity, asking for more social innovation and forcing us to “fundamentally review the way our societies function and to do our best to empower everyone, young and old, to contribute actively in their communities.

The pressure caused by demographic changes opens a window of opportunity or – paraphrasing Winston Churchill – a “crisis” not to be wasted. It forces us to rethink how different phases of our lives correspond to different ways in which we use urban space or interact with the community, from childhood to the old age.

More than infrastructure

So what kind of changes our cities need? We tend to reduce the question of accessibility or openness to the physical space: not too many stairs, easily readable information, reserved seats on public transport. Accessible cities are about infrastructure and services but also, perhaps even more so, about voice and visibility for all citizens, regardless of age.

WHO lists 8 dimensions of an age-friendly city, covering both physical and social fabric of the city, and offers a handy checklist for those willing to assess their city’s performance.


There is also a tradition of looking at cities from children’s rights perspective, rooted in the work of UNICEF and their Child Friendly Cities campaign. According to UNICEF, a child friendly city is a city commited to fulfilling children’s rights, including safety and health, civic development, play and social activities, and equal opportunity rights.

The 3 stories below represent different approaches to child- or age-friendly cities: city-wide commitment in Ghent, exploratory participation project in Barcelona and an intergenerational success story from Deventer that shows the need for integrated thinking about the needs of different age groups.

Ghent: we don’t want a separate Children’s City

Children’s City - GhentSource: City of Ghent

The long-standing URBACT city of Ghent (Belgium) defines itself as open, solidary, smart and child-friendly. No wonder then that on 7-9 November this year the city will host the 8th edition of the Child in the City conference.

Elke Decruynaere, the city’s Alderwoman of Education, Upbringing and Youth, invites all to learn from Ghent’s experience: “In June 2015 we released a child and youth-friendly city action plan, containing 182 commitments, demonstrating our commitment and ambition for the city. A children’s secretary was appointed to involve youth movements, civil society and citizens to work together to realise the plan and so this conference is very timely event for our city.

However, Decruynaere adds: “I don’t want a separate Children’s City. Children and young people should be an integral part of our city. For example, we are working on child-friendly events in Ghent. This does not mean that there must be a separate place for childcare: the event has to be also fun and enjoyable for children and young people”.

Want to find out more? Come to Ghent in November or read the full interview with Elke Decruynaere here. The English summary of the vision and action plan is available here.

Barcelona: see the city with childrens’ eyes

Actor of urban changeSource: Actors of Urban Change/Alice Archive

If you want to understand how children view the city around them, you need to find a format that will suit their needs. Can you imagine a group of 9-year olds sitting through a council meeting?

This is why Barcelona engaged in the project Alice Archive that was part of the Actors of Urban Change programme. The starting point was the following: “Children are not often considered [in urban planning processes]; they are relatively neglected by academia, the administration and thus excluded from specific proposals made about public space.” The project, a cooperation between district administration, local schools and architects, consisted of workshops with children aged 9-12 that focused on harnessing childrens’ perspectives through talk, play and experiments in the public space.

According to those involved, the cooperation had a lasting impact not only on children but also schools and local administration:
• children were made not only more aware and observant of their surroundings but also empowered to take part in the process of shaping their neighborhood,
• local schools were encouraged to take a more active role in shaping urban space,
• administration became more aware of the value and possible mode of involving children in public participation processes.

The results of the project were used in workshops with experts and policy makers to discuss how this experiment can be taken further by defining new ways of integrating children into local planning processes.

Humanitas: seniors and students living it up


See more on : ‘Drinking Games And Jigsaws: A Unique Dutch Retirement Home

Different generations may have different but complementary needs. The retirement home and student housing in one, run by a non-profit organisation Humanitas and located in the Dutch city of Deventer, is a great example of this. You can watch their story in a short documentary titled “My 93-year old flatmate”.

The premise is simple: students need affordable housing, older people living in retirement homes need extra care and resources – as always – are scarce. In 2012 the situation in the Netherlands reached a critical point where cities like Amsterdam were short of thousands of student rooms and at the same time the Dutch government has cut care funding for people over 80.

This led Humanitas, a non-profit organisation active all over the country, to come up with the idea of offering free housing to students in exchange for 30 hours a month of volunteer work. The programme developed in Deventer is such a success that it has been copied in other retirement homes in Netherlands and elsewhere.

If [students] could get a room in Humanitas, they wouldn’t have to borrow so much money for their studyexplains Gea Sijpkes, the CEO of Humanitas, and adds: “at the same time, I have some young people in the house, which makes Humanitas the warmest and nicest home in which everybody who needs care would want to live.” Deventer may be warm and nice but also definitely… exciting! The documentary that attracted millions of views online shows students and older residents playing drinking games and talking about sex but also supporting each other in difficult moments.

Instead of building cities for the younger or the older, let’s build the city where they can all meet and have fun together.

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