Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Older People

Old age and the city

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 25 July 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4418
  1. Edwin Heathcote, architecture correspondent
  1. 1 Financial Times, London, UK
  1. edwinheathcote{at}

How can cities, which have been predicated on youth, be encouraged to accommodate an ageing population and keep the over 60s healthier for longer? Edwin Heathcote reports on projects from Berlin to New York

We can all imagine a picturesque evening street scene in the intimate piazzas of a Mediterranean city. The old folk have taken out plastic chairs and are sitting outside their houses and apartment blocks. Or they might be sitting on benches while the grandchildren play in the street or stroll up and down with their parents enjoying the passeggiata. Or perhaps a street scene from old Brooklyn in which the seniors sit chatting on the stoop outside their homes, complaining about how the world has gone downhill.

These may be idealised scenes, snapshots that exist more in our collective memories of holidays and movies, but they do illustrate how the city streets can be a place in which elderly people play the pivotal role. They are the guardians of the street: watching, listening, shopping at the corner store, occasionally scolding, gossiping, perhaps interfering, but always aware, making the street a conduit of conversation rather than transportation.

Modernism, as Jane Jacobs pointed out in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of American Cities, nearly did away with all that. Jacobs highlighted how the idea of “zoning” was killing the city street. The separating out of retail, living, and working into distinct and separate zones was creating enclaves of ennui, zones where only one thing happened and then only at certain times of the day. The vibrancy which was the whole point of city life was fading away as nations suburbanised, increasing distances between dwellings and people, relying ever more on cars and the depersonalised non-spaces of the supermarket and shopping centre. Old people were shipped out …

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