Age-friendly city comes to Estonia: Nordic experts explain what this should mean

Monday, 22 January 2024
In Oslo, a system of pink buses was introduced, which is the age-friendly transport there, which operates based on demand. It has inspired several other transport models across Norway. In Oslo, a system of pink buses was introduced, which is the age-friendly transport there, which operates based on demand. It has inspired several other transport models across Norway. Photo: Ruter/Thomas Ekström

In our ageing society, it’s increasingly important to ensure that everyone feels good in the environment around them. So the Nordic countries set themselves the goal to create an age-friendly community suitable for all people. Experts from Estonia, Norway and Sweden explain exactly what this means.

An age-friendly city or community is a place where all people, regardless of age, have the opportunity to live, work and achieve self-fulfilment,” says Sirle Salmistu, urban planner and Senior Researcher at the School of Engineering of the TalTech Tartu College, to introduce the concept. In other words, these places that support aging are good places to live.

According to the experts, the idea of an age-friendly community is to cover the entire lifecycle, i.e. to include all people, regardless of age. And yet, the focus is more on older people aged over 65, as they often have a weak or non-existent voice in society and their opinions are often disregarded. “However, if we generalise a widespread thought, then if something works for children and older people, it works for everyone else too,” explains Salmistu. “For example, the concept of ‘8-80 cities’ is basically equivalent to the concept of a city that is age-friendly.”

This, in turn, requires accessible and supportive urban space, an environment that enables social interaction and accessible and necessary services.

A good example is Norway, where the creation of an age-friendly environment is important at the national level. For example, it’s part of the national reform ‘Community and Independence – Live Safely at Home’. By late 2023, 216 local authorities had joined the Age-friendly Community Network in Norway.

Cities and communities are the main drivers for this development. In addition, volunteers, local businesses, organisations, etc. are also involved in this development. It is a cross-sectorial collaboration. The age-friendly projects are focusing on housing, transport solutions, outdoor areas and different activities that all enable older people to live at home for as long as possible and be included and active in their local communities.

"It is important to involve older people in this development, so we make sure we develop policies and initiatives that reflect their needs and wishes. How we communicate to older people is also essential, given the increasing degree of digitalization “says Anne Berit Rafoss, Project Manager at the Centre for an Age-friendly Norway. “It’s important to think about how we engage older people in the digital world, so that they can access the information that is relevant to them.”

Many good examples in the Nordic countries

In order to officially become an age-friendly city, it’s necessary to join the WHO Global Network for Age-friendly Cities and Communities (AFCC). It is an age-friendly city and community network established in 2010 to promote cooperation.

“Age-friendly” means promoting the well-being, health and independence of older and ageing people, while making cities and communities more liveable for all. “The membership of local authorities is based on the WHO’s evidence-based approach, with input from researchers combined with the experience of the world’s 33 largest cities and metropolitan areas and their elderly populations,” explains Emma Matsson, Developing Manager for Age-friendly Gothenburg.

A good example here is Uppsala, which joined the network in 2016, and Gothenburg, which joined in 2015.

According to Kenny Jansson, Coordinator of Uppsala’s Age-friendly Environment, the local authority as a member of the network aims to make the city a more age-friendly place to live, step by step. “This work is controlled and structured by a specific action plan for which the whole local authority is responsible,” says Jansson. “The municipality is also working with local pensioners’ organisations, civil society and businesses.” A summer area has been created, suitable for people of all ages. Walking runs are organised for all age groups, including people in wheelchairs and with other assistive devices. In addition, the elderly can have lunch in local schools.

According to Emma Matsson, the decision to join the network is driven by Gothenburg’s ageing population and the rising number of people aged 65+. “The city is also growing fast, and an age-friendly perspective in urban planning can help more elderly people not only to remain independent but also more active in society,” says Matsson, adding that an age-friendly city is actually beneficial for people of all ages.

According to Matsson, the main work lies in shaping and streamlining the city’s social and physical environment to promote safety, health and participation at all stages of life. “It’s based on the participation of older people and strategic actors in planning and adapting Gothenburg to an ageing population,” adds Matsson.

She describes how Gothenburg is adhering to an action plan that includes action in 16 focus areas such as mobility, housing, social inclusion, information and communication, urban environment and community support. “Chatty-benches are one of these actions,” specifies Matsson. These benches are placed in strategic locations in the city where people often run into each other. The main aim is to encourage people sitting on these benches to talk.

The idea of these benches has already been developed further and benches with a roof, solar panels for charging phones and heated benches have already been set up in addition to ordinary ones.

Games that bring generations together

Going back to Norway, their ‘Generation Games’ can certainly be regarded one of their success stories. “This is a physical and playful intergenerational event, specifically designed to bring different generations together,” describes Anne Berit Rafoss, Project Manager at the Centre for an Age-friendly Norway.

The "‘Generation Games’ held in Norway bring different generations together. Photo: Thomas Andrew Haugen Koonce

The main reason why the ‘Generation Games’ were created is that young and old people no longer interact as much as they used to. “We don't have these natural meeting places in society,” says Rafoss. “The ‘Generation Games’ is therefore a great opportunity to bring generations together. This gives children, adults and older people a reason to come together, have fun and be physically active”.

Thanks to the popularity of the ‘Generation Games’, myths about other age groups, both young and old, have also been busted. “When a 10-year-old child sees his grandfather playing games, he realises that an older person can also be in very good shape, and maybe it even makes the young person give up their smart device and do something with others”.

In addition to the Generation games, all age groups are involved in a wide range of joint activities in several local authorities. “In some places, younger people teach their parents how to use computers and about digitalisation,” says Rafoss. “At the same time, older people pass on their knowledge of history to young people, talking about their own past. There are a lot of activities that they undertake together.”

Prizes are also awarded at the ‘Generation Games’. Photo: Thomas Andrew Haugen Koonce

Estonia could also join the network

Although no city or local authority in Estonia has joined the respective WHO network or set up a local network of this name, Salmistu said she was pleased to see that the examples of Nordic cities that were shared with each other at the conference are already in use in many places. “For example, the fall prevention programme for older people, advisory councils or representations of the elderly, senior citizens’ days or festivals, not to mention recreational activities in day centres, and we have formulated the principles of an age-friendly Estonia,” she lists.

Accessibility issues are also being solved and the public spaces that promote healthy lifestyles are also discussed. Thus, there are separate solutions and interventions in place in Estonia, but a comprehensive approach is still lacking. Salmistu points out that Estonia needs a change of mindset, where ageing is seen as a normal part of life that affects everyone, and older people are viewed more positively.

“Our society in general is quite youth-centric,” she says. “When spatial decisions are made, are the needs of all members of society taken into account? Or when data-based decisions are made, do we have the data that allow us to make them? I would argue that often we don’t use the needs of older people and the data we have on them because they simply don’t exist, there aren’t enough of them or we ignore them.”

“Joining the network is free of charge, but you’re obliged to follow a process defined by the WHO, consisting of a baseline assessment of the action plan and its implementation. This is followed by a follow-up inspection and a review, i.e. the involvement of older people and the cooperation process,” Jansson encourages Estonian local authorities to join the AFCC network.

At a recent conference in Copenhagen on Age-friendly Cities in the Nordic Countries, Jansson had the opportunity to interact with representatives from the Baltic countries, where he said that we’re facing the same challenges and opportunities with an ageing population.

As Estonia’s population is also ageing at an unprecedented rate and the topicality of the issue is constantly increasing, Salmistu says that an age-friendly city coordinator at the local authority could help approach these issues in a comprehensive, systematic and focused manner. “The coordinator would oversee activities and programmes that relate to all areas of urban development and do not fall under any one department,” says Salmistu. These are the kind of coordinators that local authorities of other Nordic countries have.

It is also good for cities to have age-friendly strategies and action plans that include both short-term, i.e. fast-track, actions as well as more time-consuming programmes. It’s also important to understand that not everything has to cost a lot. “Some solutions only need willingness and changes in the mindset.”

Another idea that was confirmed at the conference in Copenhagen and which should also be analysed and implemented in Estonia is the issue of mobility and transport for older people. The so-called request-based transport or transport for seniors is widespread in the Nordic countries and could also be implemented or tried further in Estonia. “We do have social transport, but that’s something completely different,” explains Salmistu. “Also training programmes for bus drivers, which significantly increase their empathy for customers with different abilities and improve the user experience.”

"People of all ages are welcome to participate in the ‘Generation Games’. Photo: Thomas Andrew Haugen Koonce

How can age-friendly urban spaces be created?

In order to create age-friendly urban spaces, the first step should be to work on empathy and awareness-raising that creates solutions for user groups of all ages and abilities, taking into account their needs. “The principles of universal design must be consciously applied,” says Salmistu. “We also need to think about how and by whom this space could be used. Things that are essential for some to use the space are simply good and convenient for others, but in the end, practically everyone benefits.”

Talking to Salmistu and other experts, it becomes clear that it’s important to think through all solutions from start to finish to avoid later adjustments and save resources. “This doesn’t mean that unique, special, interesting or specific solutions cannot be implemented,” adds Salmistu. “On the contrary, achieving this is a challenge for the space designer”.

According to her, public space must be seen as a space that everyone has a right and a legitimate expectation to use, which means that we should create space with everyone’s needs in mind. This is how intergenerational or age-neutral spaces can emerge.

Although older people are often the most frequent users of public spaces, especially in their neighbourhood, it’s often their voice that goes unheard when it comes to designing space. “In Norway, we’ve created these age-friendly places in cooperation with older people, so that they can have a say in what’s important to them,” emphasises Rafoss when speaking about the importance of involving older people.

“In addition, when designing space, you also need to think about its lifespan and maintenance issues, as these often tend to be obstacles to using the space,” Salmistu explains. She gives the condition and quality of footpaths as an example – a footpath is of no use if it’s of such poor quality that, for example, it cannot be used independently by everyone because of the risk of falling.

Salmistu emphasises that various studies indicate that co-creation is the key to success in age-friendliness. “There is still very little of this practice in Estonia.”

Who needs these networks anyway!

One of the issues that bothers Salmistu is having to constantly explain why we need these networks and cooperation platforms at all. After all, there is a widespread belief is that they’re nothing more than marketing projects embellished with a fine slogan. “For cities that care about the issues of population ageing, this is a very valuable place for exchanging experiences, reflection and finding inspiration. It’s also enriching when you find yourself thinking that you’re already on the right track, and you find like-minded people.”

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