Aging Populations, Impact

Last month, the ratings service Standard & Poor’s issued a report citing climate change as one of the factors that will significantly impact a nation’s economy in the coming decades. Last year, the same report identified aging populations as a significant factor affecting a nation’s vulnerability.

In my mind, these are not separate issues. Cities and nations are only vulnerable because they are full of people. Among those people, one of the most vulnerable and increasingly large groups is the elderly.

By 2050, approximately two billion people on the planet will be over the age of 65 — over one fifth of the global population.

Cities are often a source of great anxiety for elders. Cities are expensive. Access and mobility are challenging. Elders often find themselves dependent upon family members or isolated and alone. A 2009 HelpAge report on elders’ attitudes to climate change revealed that almost all older people surveyed would rather stay in environmentally risky rural areas than migrate to a city. They fear becoming a burden to their families, losing the connection to their community, and being unable to work and contribute. All these factors are known to compromise health and well-being.

“New York City’s food and medicine supplies are all warehoused in New Jersey. If Superstorm Sandy had closed down all of the tunnels instead of just one, over eight million people would have run out of essential food and medical supplies before the tunnels could have been cleared.”

Around the world, there are an increasing number of high-value fixes being proposed for the problems of climate change. Inevitably, the focus is on physical resilience in cities, massive engineering projects, expensive retrofits and additional infrastructure. Less often do we recognize the critical importance of building social resilience in cities — probably because there is no obvious engineering solution. Too often, social issues are simply discussed in terms of higher costs — higher health care costs for aging people living longer, the pension fund deficit, the shortage of affordable housing, etc.

In almost every case, any proposed solution meets strong public resistance. This is because investment in one area of concern comes inevitably at the expense of another. The world’s most developed societies are failing to respond to the warnings. The choice to act is a political one — and cities are forgetting their social contract.

One of the greatest challenges we face in making our cities more resilient and more sustainable is that we too often overlook the most critical system: the human system. We are a very self-interested species, yet, as times of crisis show all too clearly, we are only as strong as the most vulnerable among us. If we are to promote better outcomes for all of human society over time, it is critical that we find ways to reestablish the balance between human needs and desires and the natural systems that support life. Our economic and social systems cannot flourish if our physical world overwhelms us.

Building resilience into our cities means finding ways to fail more gently and sustain ourselves in times of need.

Gary-Lawrence-Headshot_89x100Gary Lawrence is vice president and chief sustainability officer at AECOM.
Twitter: @CSO_AECOM

Originally published Sep 22, 2014

Author: Gary Lawrence