Age-Friendly Cities…Perhaps Not The Best Name?

This post is kind of a pre-cursor to some stuff I will be posting in the next week or two related to a paper I have been writing for my advocacy in institutional contexts class, relating to youth participation in ReThink London and urban planning in general. You know, once I finish the silly thing. I’ve really become interested in this stuff lately, particularly where the youth perspective comes in, and while it can be difficult to share non-mainstream perspectives on youth participation because it is typically met with so much resistance, it’s important to share this and I’ve come to enjoy writing a bit about this stuff, and it’s good practice for what I hope will come career-wise in the hopefully not far off future.

“Age-Friendly Cities” is an initiative that is spreading, and in fact our very own London, Ontario was the first Canadian city to join the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age Friendly Cities, which is targeted towards making cities more accessible and inclusive for older adults. It’s not the initiative I have issues with-cities often struggle to be friendly and accessible for people in general, let alone those who may have mobility issues, isolation etc. My issue is that I believe a so-called “age-friendly city” should focus on making cities that are friendly and accessible for people of all ages, with a focus on those who are outside of the groups and demographics that planners and politicians typically think of and cater to. If we’re going to focus only on older adults, then perhaps the more inclusive term of “age-friendly” should not be used.

While initiatives targeted to one group will typically have many benefits to others or to all, as a young millennial with a particular interest in youth participation and youth policy, I fear for my generation as the baby boomers age and more focus and resources are directed towards them. In relation to the age-friendly cities initiative, I encourage London, and urban areas in general, to of course ensure that the needs of older citizens are being met, while not forgetting about other groups who also have their own unique needs.

While I was proudly born and raised in a city and am the “city girl” amongst my friends who primarily grew up in small to mid-sized towns in southwestern Ontario, and am a true believer in urban life and the opportunities they provide particularly for youth, the reality is that cities are not always the most friendly places for youth. Social issues aside, they are not designed with youth in mind and this has many impacts on their independent mobility, their participation in the community, and in the overall way they live their lives.

I’m not going to quote the research in this article, I still need to do that in my paper that I have yet to finish (and I may rip out my eyeballs if I have to do one more footnote), but trust me that there is so much research out there showing how planners and politicians just don’t know how to meaningfully incorporate youth’s perspectives and how to work with them, as well as work in the field of children’s geographies showing how they navigate space differently, how they view their neighbourhoods differently than adults do, and how existing physical geography and planning plays a part in limiting their increasingly restricted independent mobility. I will be sharing more insights and suggestions on how we can better go about this soon, but in the meantime I encourage those in positions of influence to do their best to reach out and understand the youth perspective and their needs, and explore ways of facilitating meaningful participation of youth so that we can make sure that they feel safe and included in our community.

Once again, the importance of age-friendly cities for older and aging adults is an issue that is without a doubt of great importance. However, as we shift greater focus and resources towards the needs of our older citizens, please don’t forget about the others. While youth is my own focus and area of interest, we also cannot forget about the differing needs and experiences of women, people with differing physical abilities, people living in poverty etc. Yes initiatives benefitting one group will often have benefits for many others, but we cannot always make that assumption and we cannot ignore or leave out the unique needs that other groups have. We may not have the same financial resources or political clout, but we still deserve the same consideration and accommodation as anybody of any age. As London moves forward with it’s ambitious London Plan, let’s make sure that we are all onboard for the exciting ride, and that we continue to broaden our understandings of different lived experiences and the needs of various populations.