Communities for Lifelong Wellbeing

Most of the buzz around cities is centred on their rising populations. More and more people are moving to cities, and conservative forecasts predict the overwhelming majority of humanity will soon call a city home.

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An equally important but much less discussed issue facing the future of urbanism concerns aging and disabled populations. Cities are growing and that growth includes a significant number of older people as well as people with disabilities.[1]

On the surface, this should not present many new problems, but aging populations are more susceptible to social isolation as the result of urban designs. A recent UN report on the subject found that “the development of cities has long been centred on car use, prioritizing vehicular traffic, and discouraging the use of streets and public spaces. This restricts older people’s participation in community life, contributing to social isolation, making street-based, informal work unsafe, and leading to unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles”.[2]

Naturally, the report encourages more walkable urban environments. “To make cities more inclusive and supportive” the authors argue, “there needs to be a shift towards reduced car use and lowered traffic speeds, and the promotion of cycling, walking, and public transport.” The remedy for many of our urban challenges may be as simple as getting people to walk. 

But there is something more to walking when considered from an age perspective. Walking encourages thought and cultivates relationships with those around us. Relationships at any stage of life are important but late in life are critical. In fact, a 75-year-old Harvard study on aging and happiness came to a remarkably simple conclusion: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

Those with disabilities face similar but slightly different challenges as elderly people in the urban environment. In many ways, city authorities have adapted to the needs of the disabled in a more progressive way compared with the elderly. The creation of ramps and other special needs projects in cities demonstrates how the urban landscape can be designed in such a way as to encourage inclusion for all residents. However, accessibility features are not universally available, and poorly designed features can cause more harm.[3]Community engagement is the holy grail of human-centric urbanism, and should be available to every resident, regardless of his or her specific needs. Such a solution is possible in the 
hands of the right urbanist. 

Reviewing the Harvard study in 2017, INC magazine came to some additional conclusions.[4]“The biggest predictor of your happiness and fulfilment overall in life is, basically, love. Specifically, the [Harvard] study demonstrates that having someone to rely on helps your nervous system relax, helps your brain stay healthier for longer, and reduces both emotional as well as physical pain. The data is also very clear that those who feel lonely are more likely to see their physical health decline earlier and die younger.”

A walkable city with a vibrant community life centred around shops, cafés, and restaurants with ample open space is the perfect canvas to create loving relationships and community appreciation. Designing such a city while remaining cognizant of the particularities of each community is the ultimate expression of human-centric urbanism. 


[1] Ewing, Reid, and Keith Bartholomew. Pedestrian & Transit-Oriented Design. Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute and the American Planning Association, 2013.

[2] Ageing and the City: Making Urban Spaces Work for Older People, HelpAge International Publishers, 2016, 
https://www.age-platform.eu/publications/ageing-and-city-making-urban-spaces-work-older-people-helpage-report

 [3] Shalabi, Samir“New Campaign Seeks to Make Egypt’s Streets More Accessible for the disabled” Egyptian Streets. 3/11/2017, https://egyptianstreets.com/2017/11/03/new-campaign-seeks-to-make-egypts-streets-more-accessible-for-the-disabled/

[4] Curtin, Melanie. “This 75-Year Harvard Study Found the 1 Secret to Leading a Fulfilling Life” Inc, 27/2/2017, 
https://www.inc.com/melanie-curtin/want-a-life-of-fulfillment-a-75-year-harvard-study-says-to-prioritize-this-one-t.html