Aging Populations, Impact

A survey conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the United States revealed that if residents of Houston, Texas, could be guaranteed the same job with an equitable salary in another city, 60 percent would choose to leave rather than stay and fight for the future success of their city.

Taken in conjunction with the evidence from HelpAge’s survey of elders affected by climate change who would rather stay in risky rural areas than move to a city, we have a compelling argument that the most politically astute decision any city can make is to invest in strategies that make its city more attractive and livable for every member of society — cities that honor their social contract.

Fulfilling a city’s social contract does not rely upon moral obligation, but rather upon self-interest. The majority of global wealth is held in the private business sector. While more and more corporations are reevaluating their responsibility to society, it is ultimately local, regional and national government that is responsible for both the physical and social infrastructure of our cities — and by extension, for the natural resources upon which both rely.

Government can engage in meaningful conversation with the private sector if it asks, “What is in the interests of the private sector to help society become more successful?” Then, rather than moral obligation, the question becomes one of degree. Is the private sector keeping too much of the wealth from the use of natural resources for which it paid nothing? Does the health burden of contaminated resources outweigh the cost of responsible resource management? What are the financial consequences to business operations of resource depletion or unpredictable availability? What is the impact of civil unrest on business security? Are we investing enough in educating individuals to develop the technical and entrepreneurial capacity necessary for the private sector to be successful into the future? What is the risk of failing to transfer the depth of knowledge held in our elder population to younger generations? What is the impact to business efficiency when employees cannot easily get to their places of work?

We don’t need a revolution. We need a different perspective. If we can reconnect with the understanding that both our health and our wealth are inextricably dependent upon our physical environment, we can improve the way our cities serve their citizens.

Our elders still remember a time when we were not so divorced from our physical environment. I am quite convinced that engaging our elders in a conversation on the complex, vexing issues of unpredictable weather, unreliable water sources, food scarcity, restricted mobility and civil security would yield critical insights into more responsible paths forward.

Our elders are the canaries in the mine. If we can find ways to support healthy, active, engaged aging in our cities, we will have ensured that every citizen has the opportunity for a successful future.

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

Originally published Sep 24, 2014

Author: Gary Lawrence