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Global Lessons on Building Livable Communities for the Future

Publish Date: June  28,  2010


Global Lessons on Building Livable Communities for the Future
New York City
June 28, 2010

Executive Summary

As societies around the world age, there is a growing awareness of the need to adapt our communities, especially cities, to be more age-friendly. On June 28, over 160 people, comprising representatives from the United Nations, New York City and State governments, service organizations, and Permanent Missions to the United Nations, gathered for an AARP evening reception to launch the summer 2010 edition of The Journal, AARP's biannual international policy publication. The summer 2010 edition focuses on livable communities with a cover article by Mayor Michael Bloomberg highlighting New York City's efforts to make the city more friendly for people of all ages.  During the event, the World Health Organization (WHO) presented New York City with a certificate as the first member of the WHO's Global Network of Age Friendly Cities, recognizing New York's efforts to foster an inclusive and accessible environment that promotes active aging.  The certificate was accepted by Mayor Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and Robin Willner, Co-Chair of 'Age-Friendly NYC.'

Lois Aronstein, State Director of AARP New York, opened the event by citing The Journal, which features articles from leading international policymakers and opinion leaders addressing issues, trends and best practices for the global aging population.  She congratulated Mayor Bloomberg's administration, the New York City Council, and the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM), which have been working closely to identify initiatives to make New York an Age-Friendly City. "In 2008, in his State of the City address, Mayor Bloomberg made a promise to New York that we would become a World Health Organization Age-Friendly City," said Ms. Aronstein. She noted that the Mayor  joined with Speaker Quinn and NYAM to conduct an focus groups and interviews with New York's older residents, resulting in a blueprint to make New York a more livable city for its growing aging population.

Tom Nelson, AARP's COO, stressed that AARP is committed to building strong bonds and connections across national borders so countries can share insights and best practices in order to create environments that promote healthy and purposeful living for people of all ages. Mr. Nelson explained that the motivation driving AARP's international work and its international policy publication, The Journal, is to illuminate potential solutions to common challenges around the world.  AARP has worked internationally toward this end since its founding 51 years ago, including over 35 years of collaboration with the United Nations. AARP hopes that the current edition of The Journal will establish an ongoing conversation through both a local and global lens about what it takes to create livable communities.

The search for age-friendly solutions is particularly critical right now due to two fundamental global demographic trends:

  • The world is aging at an unparalleled rate. In just a little over 30 years, older people will outnumber children throughout the world.
  • This is the largest wave of urban growth in history. For the first time, more than half the world's population will reside in cities and towns rather than on farms or in rural areas.

Mr. Nelson said, "AARP does not look at those facts as a cause for alarm, but as a call for creative thinking, and forward looking planning to make sure that people of all ages live active, healthy, and purposeful lives."

Keynote Presentation by the World Health Organization

In the mid 20th century, there were just 14 million people on the planet aged over 80 years. By 2050, there will be 100 million in China alone and 400 million globally. This is an incredible change in society and there are some misconceptions about it, stated keynote speaker Dr. John Beard, Director of the Department of Ageing and Life Course at the World Health Organization. While the global population is facing dramatically changing demographics, lower and middle income countries, e.g. the developing world, are experiencing the most rapid aging.

"Older people all have something meaningful to contribute to the world. Whether they can, or not, depends entirely on the environment into which they were born," said Dr. Beard. He noted that the media tends to frame aging strictly as a challenge, focusing on the need for health services, the demand for pensions, and the question of whether we can afford to grow old. The WHO views aging as a success story but also as a potentially missed opportunity, unless the inherent wisdom, skills, knowledge of older people are tapped.  Dr. Beard stated that the societal marginalization of older people prevents these contributions. The WHO believes there are three ways to overcome this marginalization: 1) Health promotion across the life course; 2) Access to age-friendly primary care and long term care; and 3) Creating environments that foster engagement.

Dr. Beard defined an Age-Friendly City as an urban environment that promotes healthy and active aging. In 2006, the WHO launched its Age-Friendly Cities Initiative with a project that involved 33 cities from around the world to identify what aspects of a city make it age-friendly and how to facilitate that transformation. The project identified eight domains that are very compatible with a livable communities approach and qualify a city as age-friendly: transportation; outdoor spaces and buildings; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information; and community support and health services.

In recognizing New York as the first member of the WHO's Global Network of Age Friendly Cities, Dr. Beard cited that the involvement of NYAM and political commitment allowed this initiative to benefit not only the older people of New York, but people from around the world. Stating that New York City is the model upon which the WHO built its international program, he noted that national programs in France, Slovenia, Ireland, and potentially China, have benefited from New York's experience.

Remarks by Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Mayor Bloomberg began his remarks by noting his membership in AARP and expressing his appreciation for The Journal featuring his article.  In accepting the WHO honor, he described how efforts to become the world's first age-friendly city "ramped up three years ago when the WHO presented New York and cities all over the world with the challenge of addressing the ever growing senior population by making our urban centers places where seniors can live longer, healthier, and better lives." The Mayor's Office, together with its partners at the City Council and NYAM, launched the ambitious effort to find out how to make New York a city for all ages. In 2009, in response to listening sessions with the city's seniors, NYC began implementing 59 initiatives.

Mayor Bloomberg highlighted programs that are common sense solutions made without big expenditures. For example, to help seniors do simple tasks like grocery shopping, the city started using school buses, which sit vacant most of the day, to shuttle older New Yorkers to and from grocery stores. To help seniors stay in their homes, the NYC Housing Authority now provides free legal assistance and crisis intervention for seniors at risk of eviction. In closing, Mayor Bloomberg acknowledged the distinguished international guests present and emphasized the value of exchanging ideas and practices with other world cities.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Robin Willner, Co-Chairs of 'Age-Friendly New York City' discussed the need for cities across the world to realize that cities are growing older. "The great thing is that people are living longer and they want to live vibrant, connected lives and the challenge to city government and city life is to do a better job of making cities places that embrace the wonderful reality and potential of seniors," said Speaker Quinn. Speaker Quinn stressed the need to more deeply recognize that seniors and different age groups are diverse and noted the need to better factor different age groups' potential into the structure and focus of NYC.  Ms. Willner highlighted the significance of engaging with older New Yorkers and taking advantage of their experience and wisdom to tell the NYC Commission what needs to be accomplished. "A city that is age-friendly is also a city that is welcoming, robust, and attractive for people of all ages," stated Ms. Willner.