Cities for the aged
Population ageing and urbanisation are two global trends that together comprise major forces shaping the 21st century. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports: “Average life expectancy at birth in 1955 was just 48 years; in 1995 it was 65 years; in 2025 it will reach 73 years”. Cities are attracting people from all corners of the country. As cities are growing, their share of ageing residents is likely to increase. Age is a natural phenomenon and everyone turns old with physical, mental and social disability increasing along with age. Nepal is in the state of demography with highest number of youth group. It means that upcoming generation will have higher percentage of ageing people.
With the growing pace of development, our cityscape is expanding in a very short time and it is proving difficult to plan and manage. Cities are to be built for every kind of people residing there. They are to be designed not only for the energetic youth who drive the economy, but also for the ageing people who are an integral part of the economic process. Although proportionately older persons live in rural areas in Nepal, rapid urbanisation is gradually reversing the picture. Large cities like Kathmandu, Pokhara and Biratnagar will have substantial numbers of older residents in future.
In ancient Kathmandu valley, there used to be chowks (crossroads), patis (roadside shelters) and courtyards where people, especially of ageing group, gathered and socialised through different means like conversations, bhajans (religious chants), dances, religious activities, cultural programmes or hobbies like weaving and thread making. Some of these activities can still be seen in few areas of Newar community in core areas of the valley. But these types of spaces have disappeared in the development of cities these days.
Ageing people are physically inactive, are retired from their work and are mostly in need of emotional and social needs. They live in the urban family where their son and daughter are abroad or out for work the whole day, their grandchildren are in schools or offices and they barely have anyone to talk to and spend their time with. So, they tend to be attracted to places where they can meet people of similar age and circumstances. Spaces such as parks, temple and public spaces should be accessible through easy transportation or within walking distance in order to satisfy those social needs. Spaces exactly like patis and chowks which were a part of urban planning in ancient settlement may not be present in the modern scenario but spirit and function of the place needs to be the same.
Many projects of road expansion, infrastructural development, pipelines and sewerage, tall buildings and commercial complexes are in the top priority of development agenda in Kathmandu and other developing cities in the country. But has there been any consideration for spaces that provide social and environmental connection to ageing people?
There are barely any spaces in Kathmandu dedicated to fulfil the social needs of elderly people. People from the age group are mostly found in periphery of temples. Some of these places have spaces like chautaras and patis where men and women from the age group can meet, talk about society, family, children, and politics and share their experiences but these types of places are becoming rare. They are insufficient in regard to the growing demography. Green spaces, parks, recreation spaces near rivers banks and temples with adequate and comfortable sitting spaces, clean public toilets should be created in different parts of the city with easy access for the aged.
Urban mobility is also closely affecting the ageing people as mobility pattern changes along with age. We have unsafe roads, little or no spaces for pedestrians and rampant violation of traffic rules. An old pedestrian risks death or injury while simply crossing the road alone. There are barely any sitting spaces, areas with trees and plants, enough spaces for walking people to rest or hang around at certain intervals. Ageing people find it scary to go anywhere on their own using the microbus and crossing roads.
Pavements are narrow, uneven, cracked, congested or have all kinds of obstructions which affect the ability of older people to walk around the streets of major cities in Nepal. There also needs to be clearance from obstructions such as street vendors, parked vehicles and trees. Reliable and affordable means of public transportation helps in enabling aged people to travel independently and safely.
Nepal is in the phase of rapid development and more urban areas are being developed in the changed federal system. Government is in the phase of planning more than a dozen cities for the future. Age may not be seen as an important issue while planning cities at present context but it has a significant impact on lives of the people. Considering age in physical design of spaces is really important for creating better social and environmental fabrics of the place. Age-friendly city helps an older person to better use the city’s space and assists them in social connection thus promoting active ageing.
The writer is an Architect.
Published on 3 May 2018