Published on World Bank Voices

Rethinking silver: Lessons from Japan’s age-ready cities

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For the first time in human history, there are more people on our planet over the age of sixty-five than there are children under the age of five.  Also for the first time, more people reside in urban areas than in rural ones and that trend is set to continue: by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities.  Put these two trends together and you see quickly that cities are not only economic powerhouses driven by young population, but rather increasingly home to a more diverse, aging population with active and productive members who are essential to the fabric of society. It is therefore vital that our cities welcome and nurture this diverse groups in ways that are sustainable, inclusive, and equitable.

Take Japan, for instance. It has the highest proportion of older persons in the world. Its move towards a super-aged society is due to a combination of demographic factors, including very low fertility rates and a steady increase in life expectancy that is enabled by advances in medical science and improved nutrition and living conditions. In many ways, Japan’s experience of sustainably meeting the demands of rapid urbanization while ensuring urban dwellers have a place to age in place – safely, independently, comfortably, and productively – offers critical lessons for cities around the world.

Many of these lessons from the Japan and other countries informed a recent report - Silver Hues: Building Age-Ready Cities which spotlights what an aging and urbanizing future could look like. It not only offers suggestions to make cities age-ready but also age-friendly, including through technology and digital innovations, as well as smarter policies and investments that account for a wider range of needs. It demonstrates that, with the right policies, simultaneous aging and urbanization can be a significant opportunity.

Here are three big takeaways from the report – in particular, what Japan’s perspective offers to urban development more widely:

Rethink aging and ensure older populations stay healthy. The Japanese Government proposed the ideas of a Smart Platinum Society in 2015, referred as an “age-free society” which encourages its citizens to live a fruitful “hundred-year life. Japan also has a vision for its future coined as Society 5.0, where older persons are not considered senior citizens but are encouraged to stay healthy and to continue playing active roles in the labor force and society.  It acknowledges that older persons constitute a growing market for goods and services and are a critical part of what is often called a “longevity economy”.

Rethink infrastructure to meet today’s needs, including that of an aging population. The bulk of Japan’s large-scale infrastructure was constructed in the post- World War II era, catering to the needs of rapid urbanization and population growth. It has since had to experiment with new approaches to meet the demographic shift of an aging population which has specific needs. This has included asset recycling of schools turned into care facilities for older persons, repurposing community facilities to meet both day-to-day multigenerational gatherings and disaster response centers in emergency situations, renovating vacant housing by attracting young students and artists to create momentum for community-led area-based regeneration efforts, among others. In an aging society, managing infrastructure well matters as much as building good infrastructure in the first place.

Rethink urban mobility, walkability, climate-smart inclusive public transport with universal design features embedded. The physical mobility offered by cities and towns is, in fact, a draw for many of Japan’s older residents who prefer to live in urban versus rural areas precisely because of the accessibility and walkability aspects. Universal design features in public transport, for instance, could mean that transit options are easy to use for older persons, persons with disabilities, parents with strollers. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT) has advanced, as part of the implementation of national land and transportation policies, age-friendly and barrier-free design principles, applied to, for example, sidewalks, public buildings, and the transportation system. The most recent Barrier Free Law unified, within a single legal framework, accessibility guidelines for new and existing buildings and for public transportation operators and facilities. Such efforts make it possible for older persons to access destinations easily, expanding their business and social activities. Encouraging the use of public transport also contributes to reducing Green House Gas emissions and contribute to climate-smart development of cities. 

The Tokyo Development Learning Center (TDLC), a partnership between the World Bank and the Japanese government, has been instrumental in capturing Japanese and other experiences, so as to share them across the world in the most impactful formats. It has also curated technical knowledge by bringing together experts from around the world so that they can help develop tailored solutions towards more vibrant, productive, and livable cities for all residents, including older populations. TDLC’s unique operating model has influenced several teams from across the World Bank and other entities to think about how aging will affect the countries that they work in , especially those with weaker infrastructure and social protection systems.

These types of partnerships are extremely valuable and we look forward to deepening the work of the TDLC, and to identifying transformative practices in the changing urban landscape and sharing these experiences more widely. Japan’s cities are early innovators in healthy living for its older residents. The lessons – both the challenges and the opportunities - it offers are a glimpse into a future which could benefit cities around the world.


This piece was originally published by the International Development Journal of Japan in July 2022.


Authors

Juergen Voegele

Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank

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