We’ve all seen them on our Instagram feed: older people photographed in classy outfits, reading a newspaper, sipping a coffee, or walking with their hands folded behind their back. It was not until Europe that I realized how unused I was to seeing older people out in the city. On street after street in Rome, Munich, Madrid, Paris, I saw 70-, 80-year-old citizens participating in daily life: grocery-shopping, riding the metro, shopping with friends. Often dressed snazzier than me, they were fully mobile, fully independent, and fully integrated.
I’ll be honest: I don’t think of getting old when I think about life in the city. I think about being young. I think about budget thrills: street food, dance parties, thrift stores, glasses of whatever is on draft, splitting the rent with roommates, 69-cent toilet tissue, happy hours…brunch. But I think well-designed cities don’t just consider the young and the fast-walking. Well-designed cities take into account all kinds of people. As Queen J so famously wrote:
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Aging in American culture comes with the association of loneliness, dependence, and isolation. If cites were designed differently, this wouldn’t have to be the case. Walkable street design would give them agency and independence, not to mention health benefits. Interacting with other people on a daily, casual basis (grocer, local storekeepers, key-maker) could stave off isolation and loneliness. Dense street design would make it easier for them to access social meet-ups, and being in a city would mean being closer to readily-available services, but also opportunities to participate in society through a job or volunteering.