Author of 'Planning for an Ageing Society', Rose Gilroy, reflects on the opportunity presented by the upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic to rethink our social spaces and town planning for the good of all ages:
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
How are you dear reader? Miserable, feeling like a child in the back of the car 'are we there yet?' It’s been tough but let us as planners and place makers build some energy and galvanise our thoughts to visioning what comes afterward. When (let us talk of when, not if) we get out of our homes and look at the shopping zones, our towns and city centres, how much of what we had will be left? A depressing thought, perhaps, but a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink space and create places that we want to be in, that provide support, vitality and fun. Don’t we all crave these?
We have been aware of the ageing demographic for some time, since the 1840s actually - aware but fearful. The age quake, the grey tsunami, the discourse of the older person as a burden. During the pandemic almost every story about older people has been accompanied by a photograph of a pair of wrinkled hands. Let’s make a pledge that of the many lessons we need to learn from this sombre time, one of them will be to confront and root out ageism. Yes, there are challenges in growing older but there are challenges in all life stages. Existence is not for cowards. Let’s see older people as they really are - workers, volunteers, care givers, civic and community participants.
An ageing population presents a wonderful opportunity to rethink our society and the places in which we live our lives. Not just as an addition to existing agendas, but a total remaking of place. There are models to inspire us:
The WHO’s Age Friendly City  (2007) that reminds us that the quality of outdoor space, buildings, housing, and transport can be key to older people’s inclusion, their presence on the street, their contribution to the local economy and to civic life.
The Scottish Caring Place Standard  considers how we can support inter-generational contact, community building, repurposing empty space to support meaningful work and activity for all. Both of these models have at their heart a commitment to hearing from people of all ages and working to ensure that older people can contribute their voices to envisioning better places.
What about the RIBA’s Silver Linings  which presents a range of ideas to radically reshape the built environment? Some of their ideas are quite prescient as they envisage more flexible work practices that lead to more life/workspaces and a greater desire for multi-generational housing that gives mutual support across families. Their ideas for the High Street present “an urban fabric of retail, commerce, service provision and recreation [that makes] an ecosystem of production and consumption, of learning and working, of socialising and caring” 3. I could live with that, couldn’t you?
We don’t want to go back to the old normal. Much of that was poor. It takes courage, but let’s not fumble the chance to take bold action. There are great resources that can be tapped. The image of the seat (below) is one developed between older people, Newcastle University and the Design Network North. It offers easy access and sociability while paying attention to safety and comfort. A very small project but an illustration of what we can do in partnership.
Many older people are committed to place issues and are prepared to work alongside professionals to envision and help deliver better solutions.
At present, in tough times, we need to believe that a shared spatial imaginary can stimulate change and that actions that challenge the oppression of our streets, transport system and housing might lead to new ways of doing business and new ways of living that benefit all of us, irrespective of age. It will take effort and courage, but we are up for it aren’t we?
As planners we are committed to making places for human flourishing.
So let’s do just that.
-- Rose Gilroy, February 2021
Rose Gilroy's book 'Planning for an Ageing Society', part of our Concise Guides to Planning series, is out on 8th February. Order your copy HERE.
Images: Photographs taken by Rose Gilroy.
References / Notes:
 Parkinson, J. Hunter, W. and Barac, M. (2013) Silver Linings: The Active Age and the City. SilverLiningsTheActiveThirdAgeandtheCitypdf.pdf (architecture.com)