How to Create Age Friendly Cities

By Jon Feather

John Feather, PhD, is CEO of Grantmakers In Aging (GIA), an affinity group of philanthropies with a common dedication to improving the experience of aging. GIA members have a shared recognition that a society that is better for older adults is better for people of all ages.

Jun 7, 2018 | Smart Cities | 1 comment

Life is unpredictable and we don’t always know what factors will have the most impact on our communities. One big exception, however, is demographic change. Anyone involved in planning or running a smart, sustainable city knows (or should know) that a defining feature of the 21st century is how much longer, and often better, many of us are living. An American who is 65 today can expect to live an average of 15 to 20 more years, well past traditional retirement age. For urban leaders, this presents an important opportunity that gets missed surprisingly often.

One effective way to take advantage of the new longevity is to create age-friendly cities. This capitalizes on the momentum of millions of older citizens who still have decades of life in front of them and also generates significant benefits for residents of all ages.


What Are Age-Friendly Cities?

Age-friendly cities–also called livable, or lifelong communities – have much to offer. As defined by the World Health Organization’s Global Network for Age-friendly Cities and Communities, age-friendly features include good walkability, transit, and mobility; affordable, accessible housing; employment and volunteer opportunities at every age; well-coordinated health and social services; and more inclusion and intergenerational connection.

You’ve probably noticed that this could just as easily define a Millennial’s wish list for the perfect place to live.

Age-friendly cities also offer more and better ways to age in place–something else the vast majority of urban residents of all ages say they want. They are great places to grow up and grow old.


Creating Age-Friendly Cities

Creating age-friendly cities requires vision and patience. It’s a team effort that needs buy-in from elected officials, citizens, business leaders, regional planners, developers, transportation experts, nonprofit, health systems, and others, some of whom may not know each other yet.

What it does not necessarily require is a lot of new funding. Instead, this form of community development seeks to add an aging “lens” to decision-making processes that are already in place – like regional and master plans; zoning ordinances; social service regulations and planning; and infrastructure, housing, construction, and transportation codes.

The good news is that many of the services and resources an age-friendly city needs are already there – they just need to be integrated and connected better.

When former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg oversaw the launch of Age-Friendly NYC in 2007, he instructed officials at every city agency to ask themselves before every decision whether it advanced the “age-in-everything” approach. Early results included adding park benches (after research revealed that not being able to sit and rest was discouraging older people from walking for exercise); special hours for older people at public pools; and a program to help small businesses accommodate older customers with improvement in website design, lighting, and customer service.

In LA, Mayor Eric Garcetti has taken a similar approach with Purposeful Aging Los Angeles, where innovations have included senior center cyber cafes to combat social isolation and more age-friendly public transportation.

Creating age-friendly cities is a long process, but as Mayor Bloomberg said when he put New York’s 50-year age-friendly plan in place, “If we don’t start today, in 50 years we still won’t have an age-friendly city.”


ROI: Age-Friendly Communities are Economic Engines, Not Cost Centers

As CEO of Grantmakers In Aging (GIA), the national affinity group for philanthropies dedicated to improving the experience of aging, I’ve seen this work up close.

With support from the Pfizer Foundation, GIA led a three-year program called Community AGEnda to help five localities accelerate their efforts to become more age-friendly. The Community AGEnda partner sites are located in Miami-Dade County, Florida; greater Kansas City; Atlanta; Maricopa County, Arizona (greater Phoenix) and the state of Indiana. This video offers a quick overview.

Our partners had different goals but all needed to build broad coalitions and found that the economic benefits of retaining and attracting older adults to age-friendly communities were particularly persuasive.

That why, when I speak about age-friendly communities, I often pose this hypothetical scenario:

Imagine you’re the mayor of a small city or town. The economy is slow, and you need to do something to improve quality of life. You have an opportunity to bring 1,000 new residents to town. You can choose 1,000 people who are 30 years old, or 1,000 new people who are 60 years old. Who will do more for your economy?

Ninety-nine mayors out of a hundred would say the 30 year olds. Unfortunately for them (and their economies), it’s the wrong answer. And it’s not just mayors: most urban planners, zoning boards, real estate developers, and chambers of commerce would probably say the same. But they’d be leaving money on the table, because older people bring unmatched economic benefits to their communities.

  • Supporting local economies as consumers
  • Contributing as volunteers and mentors
  • Being entrepreneurs, twice as likely as Millennials to start a new business
  • Bringing portable assets: savings, work income, or public benefits like Social Security (often the most stable source of income for children under age 5)
  • Relieving traffic and maximizing business efficiency by shopping, dining, driving, parking, and using public transportation at different times than office workers or young families.


A good case study comes our partner in greater Kansas City, KC Communities for All Ages at the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC). Using the REMI economic forecasting model (a regional economic forecasting policy analysis model widely used by governments, consulting firms, and utilities), MARC showed the highly positive economic impact of older adults by modeling a scenario that would retain 600 older adults in the region each year for ten years. The result: an impressive gain of 2,600 jobs, which raised regional annual income by nearly $500 million dollars and regional GDP by nearly $250 million.

Similar analysis by the Research and Analytics Division of the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) found that the older adults bring ten times more personal income to the region than a younger age group and contribute three times more to the region’s GDP.

The business community has begun listening. “The turning point for us came when our regional economist, who is highly respected in the region on business issues, began talking about the demographic shift and the need for this kind of development and investment,” says Cathy Boyer-Shesol, Project Manager for KC Communities for All Ages.


Getting Started: Make Philanthropy a Partner

Every city is different, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and becoming age-friendly clearly requires thinking big. To avoid paralysis, our experience has been that it is best to start small and garner some early “wins,” like a successful community garden or longer traffic lights to make it easier for older people to cross streets safety.

Finding the right partners is also crucial. Don’t overlook foundations and corporate philanthropy. Funders have a unique contribution to make, even if governments and other players may be  unused partnering with them.

Philanthropy can be a versatile role player, contributing in a number of ways in addition to providing funding, such as:

  • Bringing coalitions together. Foundations are often broadly connected and respected and can be a neutral convener, leveraging relationships to broaden a project’s base of support.
  • Mapping the landscape. Some elements of this work may already be under way but the parties may be unaware of each other. Philanthropy is often a common denominator.
  • Providing “proof of concept” funding. Piloting, testing, evaluating, and scaling up new ideas requires support. Finding even small sums for this kind of exploratory work can be hard in municipal budgets but this is a natural fit for philanthropy.
  • Backing small “early wins.” Most philanthropic funds are held by local philanthropies like family or community foundations. Many are small but the kind of local, shorter-term projects that they regularly support can produce terrific rallying points in the early stages of a long-term program.
  • Supporting evaluation. It’s useful to understand what is working, why is not, and why. Foundations often have special interest and expertise in this work and can fund it as well.
  • Keeping projects viable long-term. Funders are good at enlisting other funders, which is key for project sustainability. Success also breeds success, which is why, in Community AGEnda, each partner was required to raise local matching funds for one-third of the amount they received from the Pfizer Foundation grant (about $50,000 per project per year).
  • Being the “glue” in a long, large, wide-ranging project. Most foundations will outlast most elected officials so having a long-term champion can help keep a program alive longer. Foundations are also better equipped than many strapped city agencies or nonprofits to provide staff time, relatively quick infusions of funds, and focus.


More than 500 communities have officially joined the WHO Global Network including 174 in the U.S. Many more communities are using elements of the model unofficially. Will yours be next?


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1 Comment

  1. Good points all. There is another consideration that might be added if a constituency powerful enough to shape design and investment toward age friendliness is to be realized. That is, almost every urban attribute that benefits well and frail older adults can also benefit households with young children. Mobility, access to goods and services including healthcare, reduced heat island effects, walking access to cultural centers and other aspects of community improve qualities and ease of life for most people. Policies and investments that try to achieve a mutuality of benefit for these two groups can better leverage scarce resources and amplify political power. Research and writing of Jill Jago for WHO helps illustrate this point.


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