Can communities rise to the age challenge?



Researchers at the University of York warn that action is needed now to adapt communities in the UK to address the pressures created by unprecedented demographic changes.

A study by the University’s Centre for Housing Policy suggests a road map for the creation of ‘lifetime neighbourhoods’ which, researchers say, will help people to maintain their independence, enjoy a good quality of life and take an active role in their community, as they grow older.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to the needs of every community in terms of what a lifetime neighbourhood should look like. Different areas will have different priorities, but there are some basic principles that guide how neighbourhoods can be designed, and services delivered, to make them as accessible and usable to as many people as possible.

They say that neighbourhoods that offer a mix of residential, retail, leisure, and employment uses can help to meet the needs of diverse groups within communities. But they acknowledge that many neighbourhoods will require ‘retro-fitting’ to meet these requirements. How people get out and about around neighbourhoods as they grow older is crucial. Innovative and effective transport links are essential as well as the creation of inclusive ‘walkable’ environments for people with the widest possible range of needs.

However, the study says this issue is not just about the physical design of our streets and buildings. Lifetime neighbourhoods also means enabling older people to take a more active role in their communities, for example, through opportunities to volunteer, learn new skills, or take part in community groups and forums, as well as providing places where people can meet other people.

Resident empowerment is crucial to the development of lifetime neighbourhoods in both urban and rural settings. It says the involvement of residents, with the support of local authorities, will help to deliver key lifetime neighbourhood features including access, services and amenities, housing, built and natural environments and social networks.

All areas need to be mindful of the increasing numbers of older people in the future and how neighbourhoods can best be designed to meet these needs. However, it is in rural areas where ageing is occurring on average most rapidly, and is projected to have the more immediate impacts. Many villages are already pointing the way as to how some of the ideas of lifetime neighbourhoods that can be achieved, as can be seen from the example of Good Neighbour Schemes in Suffolk.

Co-author, Dr Mark Bevan, said: “Time is definitely not on our side. There will be massive demographic changes over the next 20-30 years so people have to start thinking about these issues now. Developing lifetime neighbourhoods is about taking a long-term view but taking action now.”

Co-author Karen Croucher added: “The importance of consultation in this process cannot be overstated. We have to think about the needs of older people, but also take into account the concerns of younger people. You have to get as wide a representative view as you can get from communities, young and old. It is all about active citizenship.”

The research was commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government and has had input from the Commission for Rural Communities. The report is intended as a resource for residents, service providers and policymakers to dip into. It provides not only some guiding principles that underpin lifetime neighbourhoods, but also examples of how groups and organisations are developing these ideas in different parts of the country.