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We need to talk about ageing in cities: the importance of gender for inclusive city building practices

Feminist Perspectives
Jenna Dutton (she/her), Mrudhula Koshy (she/her), Chiara Tomaselli (she/her)

14 September 2022

Gender and age have emerged in recent decades as two important aspects to consider for better city planning. Through examples of policy approaches and case examples from the Global South and Global North, we highlight the intersections of age and gender in current planning practices, and discuss how a proactive consideration of these intersections could promote inclusivity in city building practices.

Ageing is not devoid of gender. Men and women age differently but rarely, if ever, are these differences factored into the way cities and places are planned. Although gender mainstreaming has figured prominently in urban planning and city building, it is seldom addressed in an intersectional manner. By accumulating insights from policy approaches and case examples from the Global North and Global South, we highlight the intersections of age and gender in current planning practices and how an explicit consideration of these intersections could provide equity in city building at multiple scales and enable age-friendly cities. We argue that this consideration enables a proactive recognition of age-related specificities across gender and ability in urban environments.

Efforts at incorporating gender mainstreaming into urban practices have intensified over the past decade at a global scale. This includes developing indicators that build consensus among generations, and other aged-based evaluation tools. Examples of such efforts are Her City Toolbox - UN Habitat (2021), Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design - World Bank (2020), I’m a City Changer Gender Toolkit - UN Habitat (2016) and OECD’s 2015 report Ageing in Cities. We acknowledge that such gender mainstreaming toolkits, guidelines and resources are effective to facilitate transformation in the urban environment. However, their scope appears to be limited due to their focus mainly on the needs of women and girls. In addition, as these are global frameworks and tools, there are no formal requirements to implement them at lower levels of government.

It is crucial to look beyond gender mainstreaming and broad top-down attempts at ‘inclusive’ urban planning employed at macro policy levels. As we will demonstrate it is more effective to also probe actionable possibilities at city and local levels in parallel with macro approaches. Current interpretations of gender mainstreaming commonly do not extend to people with nonbinary identities. As such, there is a need for expansion of engendering in urban planning involving different ways of incorporating gender across planning and development. Although gender is not always explicitly referred to in the following examples, there is nonetheless evidence of gender and age intersections that could be foregrounded to enable contextualised and scalable planning and design strategies.

The capital city of the Netherlands, Amsterdam, became a part of the World Health Organization (WHO) global network of age-friendly cities in 2015. The city government instituted a multi-disciplinary team to investigate various aspects that take the needs of older people into consideration. In addition, a five-year action plan was formulated to target issues of dementia, loneliness, accommodation for older people, as well as ‘spatial methods to enhance an age-friendly environment’. This demonstrates an important targeted policy approach that also connects to spatial considerations. Ideally the action plan could be monitored and improved to extend beyond five years. 

The Hague, another prominent city in The Netherlands, is also part of the WHO global network. In 2020, in a bid to understand the needs of the older people in the city, the municipality prepared a questionnaire that posed various questions to a sample population that included older Western and non-Western immigrants’ to emphasize inclusion and diversity of the city. This resulted in an age-friendly action plan that, similarly to Amsterdam, emphasizes improved vitality, reduction of loneliness, and facilitating ageing in place.

In Japan, more than 25 cities are officially part of an age-friendly city initiative. As part of this initiative, the city of Toyama, for example, supports its older population through compact city strategies guided by policy to improve public services accessibility and promote the independence of the elderly. Importantly, 1 in 3 women in Japan is 65 or above, 92 % of Japanese are urban citizens, and older women represent a culturally important segment of the population in Japanese cities. In parallel, increasing poverty among the elderly, in particular among older women, is challenging to address.

In India, the traditional systems of care and familial support are largely informal in nature and cater to the ageing population through kinship networks and mutual aid societies. However, these organic arrangements are stretched beyond capacity under current socio-economic and demographic changes such as an increase in migration from rural to urban areas by women, and an increase in female-headed households in urban areas. Challenges are also reinforced by existing inequalities due to caste, class and ethnic differences. The National Institute of Urban Affairs is in the process of addressing shortcomings in Indian cities through BASIIC (Build Accessible, Safe and Inclusive Indian Cities) which aims to incorporate universal design principles for spatializing age-, gender- and disabled-friendly cities. The general intent and framing of BASIIC demonstrates awareness of the need for gender mainstreaming.

Inclusive city building practices that consider both ageing and gender remain challenging if planning processes are limited to formulating high-level policy frameworks. The examples selected demonstrate a need for context-specific participatory processes and targeted policy solutions. Although each country and city identified have unique approaches, they also initially identified a broader ageing focus identified through buy-in by level(s) of government, used cross-sectoral and multi-disciplinary engagement and partnerships, and established a need for social considerations of ageing such as loneliness. However, these approaches are limited due to a lack of understanding of their current and potential impact due to inadequate monitoring and implementation.

HerCity Toolkit, for instance, has recently launched their second edition at the UN Habitat World Urban Forum 11. While the summary report is not published yet, they commented “if we make a city safer for women, we make them safer for all”. While this is true, without specifically indicating how differences across gender, age, ability and others impact safety, there are limits to the potential of similar gender-focused frameworks and toolkits. Assuming that making a city safer for women and girls means “all”, without specifically acknowledging who it is currently not safe for, is limiting the robustness of potential changes and necessary solutions.

The Hague is now a partner in a project entitled How age-friendly are our cities? that is led by the Hague University of Applied Sciences. With research partners in Poland and Romania, they are further developing a tool from their aforementioned public questionnaire work that will be more replicable across the 1,100 cities that are part of the WHO global network. The main researcher, Joost Van Hoof, shared that the collaborative research project will result in a reliable measuring tool for age-friendliness that will fully involve older people. Furthermore, the work will provide an “internationally useful basis for collecting relevant data on age-friendliness, which will allow municipalities to govern more adequately and based on evidence”. Although gender is not mentioned in the research project description, there is potential to collect sex disaggregated data that could derive more accurate insights. Their qualitative approach for “joint decision-making and co-creation of policies with municipalities and actions at a neighbourhood level” also connects to participatory approaches highlighted in the other case examples.

To explicitly embrace gender along with ageing, planning could use progressive zoning and policy tools to encourage functional diversity and include a broader variety of built forms that are adapted to the needs of older people as well as catering to their physical, mental and emotional health. For Ageing in place, or growing older at home, considerations are also crucially needed for marginalized populations that have historically been limited from living in certain areas through restrictive and exclusionary planning. Finally, there also appears to be a vast disconnect between initiatives and policy approaches on gender mainstreaming and those focused on ageing. To conclude, we therefore argue that inclusive city building practices must include the experiences and identities of women and all genders for holistically integrating age-based needs.

Image credit: Nathan Grisolet

About the authors

Mrudhula Koshy, Assistant Professor at Department of Architecture and Planning, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway. Twitter: @mrudhulakoshy

Jenna Dutton, Senior Planner and Research Associate. Twitter: @debutton

Chiara Tomaselli, Urban Development and Resilience Senior Consultant. Twitter: @ChiaraNitza

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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