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What makes an Age-friendly City? Try asking an old person

Sophie Handler

A new movement is urging architects to think about designing with ageing citizens rather than for them

New Ground by PTE architects was designed with the client-residents and provides homes for older people that support their need for social connections.
New Ground by PTE architects was designed with the client-residents and provides homes for older people that support their need for social connections. Credit: Tim Crocker

The experience of ageing in our cities is often structured by segregation and dependency, as architect and author of New Aging Matthias Hollwich has pointed out. But the World Health Organization’s Age-friendly Cities project is starting to show how we can change the way we experience older age in our cities. Architects have an essential role in helping to create new and refreshingly different ways of inhabiting the spaces in which we live as we grow old, from the neighbourhood to the home.

One example of this is Pollard Thomas Edwards’ New Ground co-housing scheme in London. The first co-housing scheme to be built for older adults in the UK, it is the product of a development and design process that actively involved its residents. Awarded more than half a dozen design awards since its completion in 2016, New Ground has become a promising symbol of alternative kinds of architecture for older age.

The success of PTE’s scheme has been largely in developing a design that responds to the utopian principles of communality and interdependence on which New Ground is founded through a language of shared spaces and views. A group of 25 individual flats, customised by each resident, look out onto a shared garden, while a sequence of communal areas – the dining room, the meeting room, the laundry – are spaces that allow for what Nicholas Falk has described elsewhere as vital ‘spaces for accidental encounter’, a mechanism for fostering relationships. As one resident has put it, this is a building that has been designed to support, ‘not just their housing needs but their need for social connectedness’ too.

This focus on the social (versus the health/social care) dimension of ageing is an approach that is being advocated on a broader scale by bodies such as the World Health Organization. Via its Age-friendly Cities project, with over 500 affiliated cities, the WHO has been encouraging those involved in urban design and planning to develop a more integrated engagement with older people’s everyday lives.

In Manchester, residents help map out the relative age-friendliness of their neighbourhood and draw up a plan of action to make it more so

From building and housing to local planning and transportation to the development of community services, the Age-friendly Cities movement is pressing for a broad social, not just physical, architecture for older people. The recent book Age-friendly Cities and Communities: A Global Perspective highlights how planners, architects, designers and others are, under the umbrella of the movement, increasingly engaging with ageing beyond simply what is often drily referred to as the changing ‘functional’ ability of the older body.

The Age-friendly Cities project makes space for a broader set of needs: for social connection (as in New Ground), for building relationships within neighbourhoods and local communities and, crucially, creating conditions that allow older people to participate actively in the life and evolving shape of a city. This idea of active participation is one of the critical challenges posed by the Age-friendly Cities movement (answered in part through New Ground): how can older people help to shape the urban spaces in which they live – in different ways, at different scales? How do we design cities ‘with’, not ‘for’, older people?

In New Ground, participation occurred through a series of six workshops, led by PTE architects, that allowed then then prospective residents to be involved in the design of the community they were helping to build. Residents shared in the process of producing and designing the scheme, gaining familiarity with technical terms and architectural moves from site assessment to design briefs that proved to be, as one resident describes it, a ‘liberating and powerful experience’. These workshops cultivated a strong sense that residents had a stake in and ownership of what was being built. They allowed residents to experience an empowering sense of agency in relation to each other and to the building they would inhabit, strengthening the community in ways that extended beyond the lifetime of the workshops.

Old Moat map: designing a local plan with the older people of the neighbourhood in Manchester.
Old Moat map: designing a local plan with the older people of the neighbourhood in Manchester.

This same process of empowerment can be seen working on a larger scale too. In Manchester, the UK’s first Age-friendly City, a pioneering, participatory research and design project sees a group of architects and sociologists from the University of Manchester working with a local housing provider to engage older people in the production of a local neighbourhood plan.

Here, in the south of the city, in an area with a higher-than-average older demographic, the Old Moat Age-friendly project began an extended process of to involve its older residents. Through walking diaries, planning workshops, focus groups, residents help map out the relative ‘age-friendliness’ of their neighbourhood and draw up a plan of action to make it more so.

It is an empowering process. Residents articulate their needs as calls for action tied to specific sites and places on the plan itself. This is, as architect Stefan White describes it, ‘the map that everyone drew’: a plan that residents feel invested in and able to use as they start to engage with and confront planning rules, policies and processes. It is a concrete document with which to hold local authorities to account. It is also a model of practice. The project has become a template for operating in five other neighbourhoods as Manchester.

For the architect, ‘age-friendly’ projects like these mark a potentially exciting shift in the way in which we think about designing ‘for’ older age. They show us what designers can do when their focus is not trained simply on supporting people’s changing physical capacities. They demonstrate the way design can nurture social connection and integration and, in the process, challenge the age-segregating way our cities are structured. They also point to a broadening range of possible typologies and spaces that designers need to think about – from the alternative living arrangements of a co-housing community to the public realm of a wider neighbourhood.

Perhaps most importantly, these are projects that suggest a different kind of role for the age-friendly architect: as a facilitator. In both Old Moat and New Ground, the architects can be seen in their different ways, at different scales, working to enable and support older people take ownership of – and to a degree reshape – the spaces in which they live. These are both schemes that design with older people rather than for them. And they demonstrate the clear ways in which architects can take practical steps to enable these processes of participation and empowerment to take place, nurturing diverse forms of engagement on the ground.

Age-friendly cities and communities: A global perspective (Ageing in a Global Context) is a new book edited by Tine Buffel, Sophie Handler and Chris Phillipson. 


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