Towards Lifetime Neighbourhoods: Designing Sustainable Communities for All

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Last night’s launch of a new ILC-UK/CLG discussion paper saw a debate on how the built environment should be planned to better anticipate the demands of population ageing. The launch was very much intended to start a discussion; the issue is still surprisingly absent in many policy discussions, and the concept of ‘lifetime neighbourhoods’ itself is still emerging.


 
Put simply, we have largely adapted to the language of environment sustainability in planning. It is rare, for example, to plan our houses and neighbourhoods in flagrant disregard of the likely impact of climate change over the next few decades.

However, we do not think twice about regularly putting up new housing and building new neighbourhoods that have made very little effort to plan lifetime neighbourhoods that will offer all of us the best chances of a high quality of life regardless of age. And yet an ageing population could not be a more certain reality for our future: the over 75s will grow by 75% between 2008-2031, a much larger proportional increase than any other group.
 
As we age, we are more likely to need an environment that caters for our changing levels of physical and cognitive functioning. Beginning with the home, and extending into streets, neighbourhoods, and public and civic space, we need access to the spaces, services, amenities and opportunities to participate that make our lives human and meaningful. And when we access these spaces and social networks, we wish to do so with dignity.
 
What will happens if we carry on as we have done before? We risk the burden of ill-health and dependency, (not to mention lost social, civic and economic productivity) that comes with social exclusion and the associated ill-health and withdrawal of older populations. We pay in many ways – we pay for the services needed to manage ill-health, we pay with less cohesive neighbourhoods in which we all live, and we pay in our own lack of confidence in how our communities will suit us when we are older.
 
I would like to encourage anyone reading this blog to download the report itself to get a much more balanced picture of how we could define and plan for lifetime neighbourhoods. However, in short summary, some of the points made at the launch were as follows:
 
· Lifetime neighbourhoods do not simply tolerate a much greater range of individual capabilities. Rather, they anticipate this variation and plan for it accordingly. If we build communities to last for hundreds of years, why don’t we plan them for the people that will use them?
 
· The social, civic and economic contribution of older people is enormous. For example, the 50+ represent half of all consumer spending in the UK, and five million older people take part in voluntary work, ‘the glue that binds society together.’
 
· Lifetime neighbourhoods promote social inclusion, which in turn promotes wellbeing, which in turn promotes health, which in turn promotes economic prosperity and ‘social capital’. This in turn can promote social inclusion, and so on.
 
· Our desire to participate does not change as we age. However our ability to do so does.
 
· It is not merely the built environment which must be planned for appropriately. Neighbourhoods require social networks, volunteering and sense of place to function in a cohesive and effective way. When we plan neighbourhoods, we must plan the spaces, services and resources that encourage this interaction.
 
Some interesting points were made in the discussion that followed:
 
· Lifetime neighbourhoods must also be a vision for our existing communities, not just new ones. These will present significantly different challenges to new ones, for example they will have existing social networks and local identitiy, but may not have many opportunities for developing new social spaces and services in a crowded built environment. Work is needed to demonstrate best practice in ‘retro-fitting’ these communities to lifetime neighbourhoods.
 
· Better planning for minorities is essential. How can we plan for the community needs of BME groups? What best practice exists to guide the way?
 
· One of the greatest problems we face is dealing with intergenerational relations. Older people report fear of younger people as a major factor in quality of life and confidence in accessing public space. How can we maximise the potential for harmonious cooperation, and minimise conflict? Should we demarcate public space to different ages, or seek to provide spaces for all ages? Aside from what feel sounds best, what do people really want?
 
· Consulting older people can be a useful way of developing better planning, especially considering the diversity of older populations. However it is common for such undertakings to be token offerings and/or ignored.
 
· How can a variety of different voices crucial to ‘lifetime neighbourhoods’, such as healthcare, social care, the voluntary sector and older people themselves get their voices heard in Local Strategic Partnerships and the Local Area Agreements they put forward? Is there still time for the current round, or will it have to wait until the next one?
 
· Better evidence will always be needed to support effective policy. It is important to build on the raft of imaginative work joining of health, social care and voluntary sector underway in the Partnerships for Older People’s Projects and the Link Age Plus projects. Where we can prove the value of these programmes to health and wellbeing, we can justify expenditure.
 
· Government commitment is essential to promoting awareness and acceptance of the issue at a regional and local level. Without adequate attention in statutory guidance, such as the regional spatial strategy, issues of population will simply languish on the back-shelf, and opportunities for imaginative new developments will be lost.
 
Given the wide-ranging nature of any paper that seeks to promote a discussion of what lifetime neighbourhoods could be and how we work towards them, there are certain to be many more points that should be added. Please feel free to respond to this posting and join the debate.
 
Lastly, our considerable thanks to all who attended the event and all have supported the development of this paper. This works brings together a number of expert studies and commentaries on social inclusion, accesibility, health, wellbeing and planning and we are indebted to them for making this paper possible.
 
You can download a copy of this report for free from our website: www.ilcuk.org.uk
 
Ed Harding

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