Which cities have the oldest residents?

By 2020, the global population of people over 60 will outnumber children under five for the first time. How will our ageing communities affect urban life and where is the phenomenon most noticeable?

One of Tokyos many grey-haired taxi drivers once challenged me to guess his age. Trying to be polite, I pegged him at 64. Im 82, he grinned.

Such an admission wouldnt usually inspire confidence in a passenger. But in Tokyo, where almost a quarter of the population are over 65, working so late in life isnt just a personal triumph; its fast becoming a social necessity.

Japan, which has the highest proportion of people over 65 in the world, is ahead of other countries in embracing ageing as an urban phenomenon. Its capital city is a good example of an appropriate urban environment for older people: for one, youll rarely find steps in public buildings or train stations in Tokyo without an accompanying ramp or lift. Everything from the traffic lights to elevators to the ATMs talks at you, often in a squeaky voice. This isnt a cutesy Japanese foible, as many foreign visitors assume its to ensure that signals and instructions are also communicated to people with poor eyesight.

Cities have traditionally run on young blood, defined by energy, innovation and change, while getting older has been associated with embracing a quieter life in the suburbs or rural areas. And yet, as a result of the economic development and advances in healthcare in the 20th century, the world is both urbanising and ageing. These twin challenges are converging to create a new phenomenon: silver cities.

By 2020, the global population of people aged 60 and over will outnumber children younger than five years for the first time. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2050, there will be 2 billion people aged 60 years and older, up from 841 million today.

Older populations are expanding faster in cities than in non-metropolitan areas in OECD countries. In Lisbon, Milan, Barcelona and Tokyo, nearly a quarter of the population are already over 65. Contrary to popular assumptions, its not just a problem for Japan and Europe: by 2050, the population aged 65 and over in developing countries is expected to more than triple, outpacing the global growth rate. According to the WHO, 80% of people over 60 will be living in developing countries within five decades.

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In Barcelona, nearly a quarter of the population are already over 65. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

The ageing of the global population is something to celebrate, as it reflects the improved living standards that have raised average life expectancy from 47 in the 1950s to around 70 today. At the same time, birth rates have fallen, resulting in a higher proportion of older people. In most countries, mortality fell before fertility did, creating a so-called baby boomer generation that was followed by generations of fewer and fewer children.

In cities with slow growth this effect is acute: in Tokyo, Milan, and Barcelona, the over-65s outnumber the under-14s by a factor of around two to one. These cities could be said to be the most elderly in the world.

By comparison, cities such as Shanghai, Seoul and Moscow may be relatively young, but their older populations are growing fast. In London where 32% of the population is under 25 the number of people over 60 is projected to expand by 48% by 2035, while the population of the under 60s will only increase by 12%, according to a report by the mayors Design Advisory Group.

A third category of cities still have a majority of young people and are ageing at a slower pace, although they will face similar demographic shifts in the future. Johannesburg, where 41% of people are under 25 and only 4% are over 65, is one of these.

How does a city effectively support healthy ageing while remaining a vital centre of culture, commerce and innovation? The WHO defines an age-friendly city as one which ensures quality of life for people as they age by optimising opportunities for health, participation in society, and security. By improving access to both urban infrastructure and society, cities can ensure people remain active in work, family and civic life as they age, reaping the benefits of their experience and knowledge. Ageing societies also present opportunities for innovation and therefore growth.

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The number of people over 60 in London is projected to expand by 48% by 2035. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

However, ageing cities do face a challenge. They will need to balance a shrinking labour supply with increased costs for health and social care. In Calgary, where only 2% of older people participate in the labour force, a programme was established to hire retired city employees for limited-term projects that require particular skills. To respond to increasing care needs and to allow people to stay in their homes for as long as possible, Helsinki has launched a pilot programme to provide customised home services from public, private and voluntary associations that are in line with peoples personal budgets.

Cities will also have to deal with an increase in people suffering complex physical and mental health issues due to ageing. In Japan, dementia-related railway accidents are on the increase, which led convenience stores in Osaka to pledge they would be dementia supporters by training staff to assist older people who appear disorientated.

Balancing the desires of different generations can be difficult: last year, Tokyo changed a law to stop childrens voices being considered noise pollution, after multiple complaints from elderly residents living near schools were upheld, preventing the construction of new nurseries in a city that suffers from a dire shortage of childcare facilities.

Older people defined as those over 65 for the purposes of this article are not a homogenous group, however, as Florian Kohlbacher, founding director of the Research Institute on Ageing and Society at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University explains. Peoples lifestyles, physical and mental capacities and personal preferences become more diverse as they age. That means that while some need round-the-clock care, many others are running businesses, or marathons. Fighting ageism and the image of older people as physically or mentally impaired , or even useless is one of the major challenges in developing a city in which older people can live life to the fullest and in which their accumulated skills and wisdom are properly harnessed.

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Fauja Singh, the worlds oldest marathon runner until retiring in 2013, prepares for a race in Edinburgh in 2011 at the age of 100. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

That said, there is a higher statistical incidence of disability and illness in older people, and most of us become physically weaker as we age. Since lack of exercise can accelerate physical decline and lead to osteoporosis, obesity and other health problems, cities should encourage walking and cycling to prevent age-related declines in strength and fitness, according to an OECD report. To that end, Yokohama, a city near Tokyo, has introduced a walking programme that offers free pedometers to people over 40 and awards points for steps walked. 152,670 people have signed up so far; 92,168 of the participants are over 65.

Since close proximity to shops and parks is associated with higher mobility, compact cities with public transport networks may be healthier environments to age in than rural locations, where a car is needed to get around. In one study in Portland, housing density was associated with greater levels of walking while another in Bogota found that having pedestrianised corridors at the weekend was correlated with more walking among older residents.

But the downside of urban living can be a lack of personal contact. Isolation is a big problem for older people, who often become invisible in cities. Some are too frail or physically incapacitated to make their way around the city; others lack incentives, the financial capacity or access to social events. Many also live alone. As the WHO notes, older people tend to prefer human contact to automated systems, and so a smart city in which the main interface is a touch-screen rather than a human face may be detrimental for older peoples mental health.

However, there are some ways in which technology can be leveraged to lessen isolation. Beikta, a city in Turkey with double the proportion of over-65s as the rest of the country, launched a wellness service in 2013 that provides senior citizens with a device through which they can order services such as meals or a haircut, phone friends and family, or even call an ambulance, at the push of a button.

Work is one way to tackle isolation. The mayors design advisory group in London recently released a report advocating for the creation of an intergenerational start-up culture that would connect experienced older people with younger entrepreneurs. The report also acknowledged that many older people have the potential to become entrepreneurs themselves. Lisbon has started a Senior University, open to anyone over the age of 50, where senior volunteers offer lectures on the arts or computer sciences, while the Technical University of Lisbon (UTL) provides classes for over 50s that lead to a degree in science, technology or citizenship. A new partnership in Manchester between Centre for Ageing Better and Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) aims to develop and share innovative approaches to tackling social, economic and health inequalities in later life, including supporting people aged 50 years and over re-enter the labour market.

Due to a low birth rate and the lack of mass immigration in Japan, it is estimated that by 2022 there will only be two people of working age for every person over 65. However, it also has one of the highest labour participation rates in older people in the developed world, with 29.3% of men over 65 employed, versus 8.2% in Germany and 3.2% in France. Some work out of financial necessity, but many accept such jobs because work in Japanese culture is tightly correlated to personal self-esteem and ikigai, or purpose in life.

That reality is evident on the streets of Tokyo, and not just with octagenarian taxi drivers. Many retired men find work painting fences, managing bicycle parks, or even on roadworks, where they are usually charged with waving a luminous stick to alert pedestrians and cyclists to the existence of a hole in the pavement.

Whether theyre working or not, older people are going to be an increasingly common presence in our cities in years to come. What we can hope is that our cities old age is, much like our own, not as bad as our younger selves feared; and that, with support from both the state and society, our cities will turn more silver than grey.

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