Designing for Inclusivity 



ERA-co’s mission, ‘Advancing Humanity Through Place,’ hinges on inclusivity. We believe that prioritising inclusivity as a core design principle leads to better developments, fostering vibrant communities and, more liveable cities. Our previous piece explored how thinking about the needs of children help us design better, now we are considering a different lens: the senior members of our community. A defining megatrend of the 21st century is the world’s aging population. In a historic first, the number of individuals over 65 now surpasses that of children under five. This growth will be mostly felt in cities. In Europe alone the number of people 60+ is expected to increase by 2 million annually for the foreseeable future. As a result, cities will need to adapt to meet the needs of their growing elderly population.  

Environmental factors, health characteristics, and economics, significantly influence the well-being across individuals’ lifespans. These factors impact both physical and mental capacities, influencing how people adapt to aging and the various challenges it brings. Urban environments with its roads, buildings, distribution of daily amenities, its placement of transport nodes, collectively shape the daily experiences, which affect the elderly more than any other group.

World Health Organization’s The Age-friendly Cities Framework’

Cities, due to their economic and social resources, are strategically positioned to become age-friendly and serve as models for other communities of scale. Global institutions have provided several guiding frameworks. 2007 marked a significant milestone with the publication of the World Health Organization (WHO)’s global framework for Age-Friendly Cities, which framed best practice for age-friendly urban environments. As the WHO defines, “an age-friendly city fosters policies, services, and structures within its physical and social environment that support and enable older individuals to actively age – living in security, maintaining good health, and actively participating in society.” Age-friendly City Framework guidelines emphasise urban planning and design as a co-creation process, crucial for designing physical environments that integrate the perspectives of older adults.  

The WHO framework defines a series of ‘interconnected urban domains’ that explore the efficacy in which elderly community needs are being met, these includes:

  • Appropriately designed housing
  • Transport access
  • Cultural and civic participation
  • Income generation, skills, and support
  • Access to quality health and social care
  • Internet and technology support (communication and information)
  • Walkable neighbourhoods
  • Key amenity provision
  • Increase social inclusion and decrease loneliness.

These unique yet connected elements collectively shape the lived experience of the elderly in urban communities. The direction of our research aims to explore the experiential qualities of place when considering connectivity, amenity, and their felt impact on social isolation.


What is a Neighbourhood? 

Conceptualising a neighbourhood is deservedly a complicated subject. It is formed by the uniqueness of geography, socio-economic context, urban form, function, age ranges and behaviours of those who live and work in them. It is shaped by the daily patterns engaging with surroundings which are across multiple scales. For example, for those who commute to work, have both a workplace neighbourhood as well as a residential neighbourhood.

For the elderly it is about gauging the degree to which their neighbourhood allows them to lead independent lives, participate in paid work and/or social activities, and remain socially connected. With advancing age and declining mobility and cognitive function, the immediate surroundings of one’s residence become increasingly important for overall health and well-being.

Much research in this field has utilised fixed spatial units, typically administrative boundaries, to define individuals’ local environments. While this approach facilitates data collection, it may not fully capture the nuances of individual experience.

Defining “local neighbourhood” strictly through geographic boundaries may obscure the true areas that influence experiential and health impacts on the elderly. An individual’s daily routine and the places they frequent for work or social activities may have a greater impact than the conditions immediately surrounding their home. However, social networks like friends and family are not tied to specific locations, making their influence difficult to capture geographically.

Combining spatial mapping tools with the analysis and interpretation of narratives like oral histories, life histories, and biographies – a method termed “geo-narrative” – allows researchers to account for the full range of contextual factors influencing behaviours or health outcomes on the aged in cities.

As an example, a study carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 5 towns across the United Kingdom, interviewed a selection of men and women over the age of 70. The respondents represented different socio-economic backgrounds, living in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The interviewees were asked to wear a GPS tracking device for 7-days. The GPS tracker provided paths of movement and places of sedentary activity, thus presenting patterns of daily routines.

There were three findings that we found interesting:

Connectivity and amenity

The respondents drew the boundary of their ‘neighbourhood’ as they perceived it. These were larger than their GPS tracked areas recorded across 7-days. Those who lived in more urban areas had two scales of movement: localised walkable distances (800m – 1200m) for daily amenities, and longer distances using driving or public transport (1200m+), for hospital appointments and visit family members of social activities. The frequency of local daily trips was more than those further away. Conversely, those living in suburban or peri-urban areas, across most cases had to travel further than walking distances to meet their daily amenities and had to travel even further to reach hospitals or social events. This required either driving themselves, or those who cannot, be driven by family or a provided community service.

Example of one of the maps that show both the interviewee’s drawn impression of their neighbourhood (dashed line), with the lines created by GPS tracking (solid lines). Source: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Memory and connection to place

The results interestingly showed that all participants displayed remarkable residential stability. All responded that they had resided in the same locality, if not the very same house, for a significant period, ranging from approximately two decades to their entire lives. Even individuals who relocated remained within the immediate vicinity. Notwithstanding empty nesters moving away to retirement villages, or localised sheltered housing, this noted the intersectionality of current place, past memory and histories, and their influence on their daily experience.

Amenities mean more than meeting daily needs.

Across the interviews the concept of ‘Neighbourhood’ was described not just by geographical boundaries but by the people they met during their daily activities. Going to a local shop and bumping into a neighbour was just as important than organised activities. Walking a dog, going to a park, attending church all correlated with the activity of social interaction with others in the community.

The “geo-narratives” obtained by this study, with associated data analytics shed light on the social anxieties around disappearance during this life stage. This feeling of disappearance reflects a sense of diminished visibility and potential marginalisation experienced by some older adults. As individuals age, they may encounter social isolation or decreased participation in certain activities, leading to a perception of being less visible within their communities. We believe that urban form and location of key amenities play an important part in the life qualities of the elderly.

Urban Form, Connectivity and Amenity: Its Influence on the Elderly Population

The WHO has established a global network of 287 age-friendly cities and communities across 28 countries. These cities together with affiliated institutions and charities have produced an array of planning and urban design guidelines to make elderly residents feel more comfortable. These range from traffic calming, widening pavements, improving lighting to adapting housing, energy efficiency and improved greenspace. As highlighted by the study above, there is a growing body of research that considers strategic questions around connectivity, access and inclusion and its social effects on wellbeing.

Being able to get outdoors is essential for maintaining health and wellbeing into later life. But once accessing the outdoors, what is the felt experience? How does the configuration of the urban environment, placement and density of daily amenity shape the day-to-day experience of the elderly. We believe that the way in which urban environments are designed at the macroscale is a driving factor. Decisions around configurational arrangements of roads and the positioning of reachable amenities collectively improve the lived experience of not only the elderly but also the wider community.

As part of this piece, we have taken an anonymised city and have identified three areas of equal size and scale, representing three prototypical urban densities, amenity provision and urban configuration, defining a Low, Medium, and High-density environment. We extracted key socio-demographic indicators together with amenity distribution and urban form characteristics.

Historically, suburbs attracted retirees due to factors like larger homes, quieter environments, and proximity to family homes built during child-rearing years. As the “baby boomer” generation ages, the suburban population of older adults is increasing.

However, the trend of older adults solely moving to suburbs is slowly shifting. Many seniors are choosing to “age in place” in their existing city residences, valuing factors like access to public transportation, cultural and social opportunities, and walkable environments. Additionally, some cities are actively developing age-friendly features like accessible housing, improved public transportation options, and senior centres, making them more attractive for older adults. Across our case examples, we see that nearly 30% of the population within our selected low-density, suburban area comprised of senior residents. Conversely, 7.5% of seniors reside in high density communities.

Urban form and its impact on movement

The fabric of an urban environment, whether designed or organically developed over time, profoundly shapes how people experience it. Organic urban forms that we observe across older cities are typically comprised of permeable, legible, and connected movement networks which have a considerable positive impact on how people, especially the elderly navigate their daily activities.

Across our three, case study urban density areas we wanted to delve into the quality of their connectivity. We employed space syntax analysis across our three case studies to assess the spatial quality of those connections. This method evaluates the spatial performance of a movement network, focusing on how easily people can navigate across an urban environment.

Space syntax analysis identifies areas with varying potential to attract and retain pedestrian movement. This allows us to predict how different road configurations will influence walking patterns and resident interaction with their surroundings. Warmer colours (orange and red) indicate stronger connections, facilitating comfortable walking distances within 10 to 15 minutes, whereas blue to green ends of the colour spectrum note areas that are disconnected or isolated.

Low density: areas dominated by cul-de-sac layouts exhibit low accessibility (indicated by green and blue on the analysis). These inward-focused and poorly connected roads restrict walking options, frequently leading to dead ends. This fragmentation significantly reduces potential walking and cycling distances, posing substantial challenges for senior citizens navigating their daily routines on foot.

Medium density: present a marked improvement. Here, smaller blocks with permeable main corridors provide better reachability when walking and cycling. These features offer a more connected and accessible experience for seniors compared to low-density areas. Our analysis identified a continuous network (shown in orange and red) with high accessibility scores. This suggests a dense concentration of amenities along these routes, fostering a vibrant ‘main street’ environment. In urban areas, these main streets traditionally serve as the central gathering place and focal point for the community.

High density: areas yielded the highest accessibility routes. The presence of multiple interconnected routes allows for noticeably short walking distances (200-400 meters) to reach various amenities. This configuration creates a highly walkable environment, significantly improving the daily lives of senior residents who rely on walking for errands and recreation.

Our analysis provides insights in which how design of urban layout directly impacts a resident’s walking experience, particularly for seniors who may rely more heavily on pedestrian infrastructure. Across the world, much of the post war neighbours of the outer suburbs are characterised by dead-end streets or sprawling layouts with large distances to amenities. Grid-like patterns of some newer cities provide multiple options for reaching a destination. Across these forms the location and positioning of residential, commercial, and recreational areas decide on levels in which active, healthy, and vibrant environment can be experienced. The layout and connectivity of urban fabric dictate how far pedestrians can travel seamlessly before encountering dead-ends or major roads that disrupt their journey.

Not just about amenities

As well as the small pattern of seniors heading back into the city, there’s also a continuing trend of the relocation of senior citizens away from urban centres. This may involve encouraging or incentivising a move to retirement communities or dedicated housing options which are cheaper to build out-of-city.

Though these models offer diverse amenities, they can often create insular pockets, unintentionally segregating residents from the wider community. Beyond promoting daily health through physical activity, walkability plays a crucial role in fostering a sense of community and belonging by facilitating easy access to amenities. For the elderly, amenity provision and access are much more than meeting daily needs, they also create social moments that provide the opportunity to engage with the wider community. As marked by the earlier referenced London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study, in areas where there are poor provisions of organised activities for senior citizens, the walk to the local shop or post office are key opportunities to see other people and socialise.

This analysis examines Points of Interest (POI) data as an indicator of urban vibrancy and access to amenities. We explored not only the types of amenities but also their spatial distribution across different residential densities.

Low Density: Most retail and food & beverage options are concentrated within malls. These malls are situated near major roads, but not well-integrated with local streets within walking distance of residents. This arrangement isolates most amenities from the surrounding community. This suggests a strong dependence on car travel for daily errands.

Medium Density: Here, primary amenities are found along linear corridors that connect back into the neighbourhood. The average walking distance is around 800 meters, a 10- minute walk for a healthy adult. The linear arrangement of amenities and easy access via permeable well-connected blocks create a ‘main street’ environment.

High Density: This area boasts the highest level of urban activity and features multiple clusters with high amenity density. This translates to very short walking distances (200- 400 meters on average) to access various amenities.

While the social benefits of amenities are undeniable, their accessibility, determined by placement and distribution within the urban landscape, is equally important. This becomes evident when comparing amenity provision across our three prototype locations, each with distinct density characteristics.

Our exploration of these urban densities underscores the impact of both urban design and amenity placement on accessibility and usage. This is further emphasised by the critical role of high-quality public spaces. Well-designed street furniture and plantings are essential in creating year-round comfort, offering shade, shelter, and seating for all residents, especially senior citizens.

Social isolation

The physical and social aspects of an urban environment can significantly influence the strength and nature of individuals’ social networks as they age. Social isolation and loneliness, though frequently conflated, are distinct yet interrelated. Social isolation refers to having limited or absent social contacts, quantifiable through measures like network size or frequency of interaction. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a subjective experience characterised by the feeling of being isolated or disconnected, irrespective of the actual amount of social contact.

This distinction is crucial for understanding the nuanced relationship between social connection and well-being in older adults across urban environments. Social interconnectedness demonstrably enhances the well-being of older adults. Integration within a supportive social network creates a sense of belonging, fostering feelings of care and self-worth. This, in turn, exerts a significant protective effect on health, potentially leading to a reduced need for health and social care services.

A study carried out by **Manchester University projected that the number of single-person households is projected to grow significantly, with a 66% increase anticipated in the population aged 75+ living alone in Greater Manchester (from 97,000 in 2011 to 161,000 in 2036). These patterns can be observed across developed cities around the world. The observable increase of elderly single-person households could be seen as one of the causal factors for rising social isolation among the senior community.

Studies highlighted in this piece note the importance of informal social interaction for fostering a sense of belonging, crucial for well-being in later life. These interactions can alleviate anxieties around feeling overlooked and isolated, contributing to social isolation. Designing cities that promote dense communities with easy access to activities and fostering intergenerational connections are key components in tackling social isolation. The configuration of the street layout not only shapes how efficiently you reached your local destination but can affect how often you come across other members of your community.

Co-presence in public spaces like local roads, parks, and squares, allows for spontaneous interactions, fostering a sense of community and belonging among residents from diverse backgrounds. This can lead to increased social capital, where trust and reciprocity between individuals strengthen the social fabric of the city. Once again taking our three case-studies, we wanted to explore parts of the built movement network that has low accessibility scores and low connectivity with its immediate surrounding. The purpose was twofold: firstly, to identify parts of movement network that restrict opportunities for spontaneous interactions (co-presence), and secondly, to examine elements of the network that contribute to spatial isolation, potentially amplifying anxieties related to safety.

To run our analysis, we created a population-weighted network model integrated with measures of spatial connectivity. Our weighted spatial model allows us to test spatial isolation and likelihood of coming across other members of your community during walking trips. The parts of the network that are navy blue are both spatially isolated and have low accessibility scores.

Low Density: Comprised of a series of dead-ends, our suburban urban form has higher proportions of its network that are isolated and disconnected from movement-generating corridors. This decreases the likelihood of co-presence, coming across other members of your community for social interaction.

Medium Density: When considering medium density areas, which host more people over the same coverage, have less disconnected, isolated routes. This raises connectivity values which nearly doubles the potential of people ‘bumping into’ other members of the neighbourhood. Potential social interactions are further raised by the distribution of key amenities along connected corridors.

High Density: As compared to the low-density area, here, one is two and a half times more likely to come across other people walking around in your community. The movement network is much more extensive than both Low and Medium density communities. It is also much better connected: only 4% of its network can be considered as isolated or inaccessibility with its surrounding.

Making cities work from age 8 to 80.

Cities hold the potential to be vibrant hubs of opportunity and connection, but this potential is only fully realised when they cater to the needs of all residents, regardless of age. Creating truly inclusive cities requires a shift in perspective, moving beyond a one-size-fits-all approach and instead embracing the diverse needs and aspirations of individuals across the lifespan. Placemaking is about understanding the narratives of place. Places, for those who have lived in them have different meanings to those who have just arrived. Any new urban initiative needs to embrace the multiple, interconnected narratives of place and align them through design.

At the heart of this approach lies accessibility. Whether it is an eight-year-old navigating safe routes to school or an eighty-year-old accessing essential services with ease, a well-designed city prioritises walkability, accessible public transportation, and well-maintained infrastructure. This not only promotes physical well-being but also fosters independence and a sense of belonging within the community.

Beyond physical accessibility lies the crucial element of social connection. From playgrounds that bring children together to community centres fostering intergenerational connections, cities can actively cultivate spaces that encourage interaction and build social capital. This is particularly important for older adults who may be at risk of social isolation, but it benefits all age groups by creating opportunities for learning, mentorship, and shared experiences.

We live in an era of unprecedented amount of data and information. We at ERA-co believe that leveraging big data analytics, citizen co-creation channels, and digital twin simulations, cities can gain deeper insights into the impact of planned initiatives. A data-driven approach empowers decision-makers to make informed choices, solve real-world challenges, and build age-friendly communities for all.

By prioritising accessibility, social connection, and inclusive housing, cities can truly become places where everyone, from the youngest residents to the most seasoned, can thrive and participate actively in their communities. As the world urbanises, creating cities that work for all ages is not just a desirable outcome, but a crucial step towards a more equitable and sustainable future.

*Milton. S, et al, 2015. “A qualitative geographical information systems approach to explore how older people over 70 years interact with and define their neighbourhood environment”.

** Buffel. T, et al, 2019. Social Isolation among older people in urban areas: A review of the literature for the Ambition for Ageing programme in Greater Manchester
https://hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/institutes/micra/Handbooks/Buffel%20Tine%20- %20A5%20Brochure%20-%20Social%20Isolation.pdf



Atakan Guven, Director of Urban Analytics – ERA-co

Atakan is Manager of Urban Systems with SUPERSPACE and Senior Associate at Woods Bagot. Prior to joining SUPERSPACE, Atakan worked at Space Syntax Limited, where for over 5 years worked on an array of projects including the Jeddah Metro project with Foster + Partners and the Duqm masterplan with Atkins. While at LSE Cities, he managed a research project for PBL Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency and the London Development Agency, focusing on regional-scale city planning.

Atakan has an MSc in Geospatial Sciences at UCL where he gained a broad understanding of methods of spatial data acquisition and analysis, ranging from terrestrial surveys to satellite imagery. He has over 15 years’ experience working in the urban research field with a focus on utilising GIS and other analytical packages to inform and implement urban design and masterplanning strategies. Using an evidence-based, multi-actor approach, he has worked on projects at varying scales from the neighbourhood to the city-region level.