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Fostering inclusive environments for all generations

Rosalind Blewitt, Senior Planner, Planning, Policy & Economics, Arup

Planning and designing for people is at the heart of our profession yet many of the places we live are not inclusively designed with different users in mind. Cities Alive is a series of publications produced by Arup which recognises the need to take a human-centered approach to how we design and manage the cities of the future. These reports consider some of the key global challenges we are facing and explore the relationships between place and people, looking at how we can collaboratively work together to tackle some of these issues. Two of the publications in the series consider how underrepresented groups in our society, the young and the old, could be better served by the places they live. Designing for urban childhoods By 2050 around 70% of the world’s population will live in cities and the majority of them will be under 18. Air pollution, traffic and crime are all factors making cities child-unfriendly by restricting independence and leading to physical and mental health problems among young people. Whilst planning has its roots in creating better places for families, child-friendly planning has been neglected in recent decades, with stories of deterring kids from loitering in public places seemingly more common. Cities that fail to address the needs of children are impacted economically and culturally and become less diverse places as families move away. Cities Alive: Designing for urban childhoods sets out the foundations of child-friendly urban planning which recognises the importance of the built environment in improving a child’s development, prospects and access to opportunities. This vision moves beyond simply providing playgrounds. The report identifies two main concepts which are key to adopting a more child-friendly approach to cities:​

  1. Everyday freedoms: A child’s ability to get around their neighbourhoods safely without an adult e.g. by travelling to school or the park.

  2. Children’s infrastructure: The network of spaces and streets that are child-friendly and encourage everyday freedoms.

Recommendations for more child-friendly designs focus on walkability and minimising the dominance of the car. Formal, large scale megaprojects such as museums often exclude children who do not have access to them and a focus on interventions at the neighbourhood scale can often be more far more beneficial and equitable. The report cites some key recommended interventions which include:

  • Play streets – Temporarily closing streets to traffic to allow communities to use the space and reduce air pollution and traffic accidents. The City of Bogota regularly closes streets to cars and other cities like Bristol, London, Adelaide and New York have started to follow, including Birmingham with plans to temporarily close part of the A38 to create a paved park.

  • Intergenerational spaces – Increasing the opportunities for interaction between younger and older communities has many benefits, including health and wellbeing. Kings Cross Central generated playful interventions from its early stages of development, incorporating arts programming, urban gardens and water to generate outdoor activity and a space for young and old to meet and interact.

  • Wild spaces – Flexible and adaptable areas that bring nature back into the hearts of communities can reduce stress and anxiety in children. A heavily polluted 13km stretch of river in Qian’an City, China has been transformed into an ecologically rich landscape with a system of wetlands, paths and cycle routes and is now a popular gathering place for children.

  • Integrating child-friendly thinking into decision making – Cities such as Rotterdam, Vancouver and Tirana have started to seek feedback from children and plan with them in mind to develop child-friendly design and development guidelines.

A child-friendly approach to planning ensures that we create inclusive cities that work better for everyone and helps to solve other city challenges. Seeing a place from a child’s perspective enables us to understand how the environment could be improved for future generations. Designing for ageing communities Alongside an increasingly urban population, cities around the world are becoming home to larger, older populations as people are living longer. Planning for ageing communities presents decision-makers and built environment professionals with a number of challenges. In Birmingham it is predicted that the number of adults aged 65 and over will grow by 37% by 2036. Cities Alive: Designing for ageing communities examines what built environment professions can do to ensure that older people have fulfilling, happy lives and considers how some of the common issues facing ageing populations, such as loneliness and isolation, can be combated by adapting urban environments. The report’s framework highlights the following four central needs that cities should consider when planning for older people:

  1. Autonomy and Independence: Autonomy is key for older people’s independence and freedom. However costly home modifications and unpredictable public transport can hinder mobility. Creating walkable environments, ensuring access to transport, enabling ageing-in-place and providing wayfinding can all help retain a sense of independence.

  2. Health and Wellbeing: The physical environment profoundly impacts the physical and mental health of older residents. By ensuring access to health services, providing space for exercise and recreation and connections to nature this can contribute to places where older people have positive health and wellbeing outcomes.

  3. Social Connectedness: Loneliness and isolation from a lack of interaction are key issues which can be common amongst older people. Promoting inclusion and civic participation, creating intergenerational spaces and providing options for older people to stay in their communities can help to create feelings of connectedness.

  4. Security and Resilience: Many global changes that we face, such as the increased likelihood of extreme weather conditions, affect older individuals more due to their physical vulnerability. Preparing for extreme climates in addition to designing safe streets and public spaces and promoting dementia safety are key strategies for responding to security and resilience issues.

One of the key strategies for autonomy and independence is enabling ageing-in-place, which refers to a living environment that is adaptable to a person’s changing needs over time. A good example of this is the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust (BMHT) which provides social housing that includes homes specifically designed for older people. BMHT are constructing two-bedroom bungalows that are smaller than an average two-bedroom house and designed to respond to residents changing needs over time. Occupants can live on the ground floor with access to all the necessary amenities, with the upstairs containing a second bedroom and bathroom which can allow for guests or future caregivers, adding to an age-friendly living space.

Including older people during the planning and design process allows communities to benefit from their experience and knowledge of the places they live and provides a way of ensuring that the environment responds to their needs. The needs of both the old and the young are critical to the success of our future cities and communities. The issues that come with increasing urbanisation require urgent changes to the way we plan, design and live. As planners these issues present us with opportunities to consider how the built environment can shape our lives from the very beginning and enable us to work towards creating healthier and more inclusive places for people of all ages. For further information on these reports and others in the series, please visit the Arup website:

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