Published on Sustainable Cities

Our planet is aging—fast. How can cities be ready?

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A few years ago, my family and I boarded a bus in Japan’s Shikoku Island, where some of our distant relatives live. The rural landscape outside my window was beautiful, but there was something else about the experience that has stuck with me to this day. I distinctly recall that just about every other passenger on the bus was in their 60s or 70s, if not older. I would soon learn that many of them lived in a village where a staggering two in three people were over the age of 65. “All our children have left,” one older woman told me.

Our planet is aging—fast. For the first time in history, people aged 65 years or over worldwide outnumber children under five. By mid-century, there will be more than twice as many. 

Particularly in cities, this is the result of increasing longevity and declining birthrates. According to OECD data, the top 100 metropolitan areas with the highest proportion of residents aged 65 or over are in nine countries: Japan, Germany, Italy, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Poland, and the Netherlands.

But aging is not unique to developed countries. There is growing evidence that aging is becoming a prominent issue in emerging economies like China, including its Shanghai and Nantong metropolitan areas. By the year 2030, aging rates are expected to be highest in Latin America and the Caribbean, followed by Asia and Africa. It is also likely these regions will experience aging at a faster pace than what has occurred in developed countries, further straining underdeveloped infrastructure, lower levels of national income, and weaker social protection systems.

So, how can we design cities to be age-ready, enabling the elderly to age in place and be productive, integral members of society at the lowest possible cost?  Does the solution lie in changing fiscal incentives? Is it rethinking urban service delivery and housing?

There is no simple answer, but in resource-poorer environments it is clear we need a new approach to urban development. Emerging economies have limited fiscal space and capacity to prioritize age-ready urbanization over competing policy agendas such as public health, economic growth, and access to basic services.

But not all age-readiness investments need be so resource-intensive or disbursed in one go. Empirical quantitative studies show that early-stage, incremental investments in areas such as universal accessibility can pay dividends, especially if the investments include carefully defined technical criteria and are responsive to end-user needs. This proactive approach is also more cost and time-efficient, given how expensive and time-consuming it can be to retrofit infrastructure and entire urban forms. It’s good for people, good for cities, and good for balance sheets.

In partnership with the Tokyo Development Learning Center, the World Bank held an action-oriented dialogue with 15 country delegations on ways cities can be more vibrant, productive, and livable for all residents, including older populations. We’re supporting countries in sustainably meeting the demands of rapid urbanization while ensuring urban dwellers have a place to age in place—safely, independently, comfortably, and productively.

For example, in Vietnam, we’re financing efforts to put universal accessibility at the heart of slum upgrading. This is important because elderly citizens comprise a disproportionate number of those living with disabilities. We have also initiated a global study to further identify opportunities for transforming the built environment of cities and proactively respond to changing demographics, looking at age-readiness of cities through the lens of adaptability, spatial accessibility, and inclusivity with a focus on gender parity and technology.

There is little guesswork with aging. It is one of the most predictable policy variables: with a high degree of confidence we know where, when, and how aging will happen. That’s why there’s no reason to overlook aging in development planning. Thinking ahead is more cost-effective than reactive responses down the road.

By the time my son and his generation enter the Japanese workforce in 2035, an average of just 1.7 working-age people will be supporting every senior citizen, down from 2.0 people today. This is an even sharper decline from 11.2 people in 1961, when the national pension system was first designed (see data from Japanese Cabinet Office).

Such trends will manifest in different ways across many parts of the world, and they deserve further investigation. But the commonality they share is simple: infrastructure, systems, and technology provide huge opportunities for empowering aging populations to remain active members of the society.

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Yuko Arai

Urban Specialist

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