Social isolation is one of the most significant challenges facing older adults, and as people age and experience reduced access and mobility, their immediate neighborhoods become increasingly important. Without local, walkable access to services and community, many older adults become isolated and experience depression, leading to numerous other health risks.
Through their article "Age-Unfriendly by Design: Built Environment and Social Infrastructure Deficits in Greater Melbourne" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 89 No. 1), researchers Maxwell Hartt, Geoff DeVerteuil, and Ruth Potts explore the intersection of built and social environments for older adults in Melbourne, Australia.
Australia's demographic-environmental disconnect is evident given its significant population of baby boomers and strong suburban fabric; two-thirds of the population live in suburbs. Melbourne has made policy commitments to developing age-friendly cities, however the actions are primarily focused on inclusive planning process and outreach over actual built interventions.
In this study, Hartt et al. conducted spatial and statistical analyses to examine:
- Whether levels of social infrastructure were correlated with the supportiveness of the built environment
- The scale, scope, and spatial distribution of vulnerability for older adults.
And led informatant interviews to trace the perceptions of practitioners around suburban older adult vulnerability.
The researchers categorized social infrastructure into public, nonprofit, and religious institutions. Examples of public social infrastructure are libraries, public pools, parks, and transit hubs. Nonprofit social infrastructure may be neighborhood houses and men's sheds (community groups that support health and wellbeing), or women's associations and other affinity organizations. The study also relies on suburban typologies distinguished through transit behaviors that include active cores, transit suburbs, auto suburbs, and exurbs.
Hartt et. al. found a clear spatial correlation between the prevalence of social infrastructure and how supportive the built environment is. Illustrated in Figure 2, social infrastructures are heavily concentrated in Melbourne's active core, and disperse as the city radiates out into exurbs.
Figure 2. Social infrastructure and built environment in greater Melbourne.
The researchers then controlled for population density to determine whether social infrastructure distributions were proportionate, which illuminated that active core areas had disproportionately high concentrations of social infrastructure. This disparity was exacerbated for older adults — active core neighborhoods have about three times the amount of social infrastructure per capita as auto suburbs for adults 65+, and six times the amount for adults 85+ (see Table 1).
Table 1. ANOVA tests comparing mean levels of social infrastructure per neighborhood (SA2) across built environment types.
The study also analyzed the levels of older adult vulnerability by examining adults 65+, 65+ living alone, 85+, and 85+ living alone. They then categorized areas by high or low levels of social infrastructure (above or below the metropolitan average) within the suburb categories. Hartt et al. found that over 70 percent of older adults in each category live in auto suburbs, and over 50 percent live in areas with low social infrastructure.
The final component of this research analyzed policymakers' perceptions around older adult vulnerability through 14 state-policymaker interviews. Through these interviews, Hartt et. al. found three primary themes:
- Awareness of the challenges: Policymakers were acutely aware that suburban built and social environments were inadequate for meeting the needs of older adults.
- Reluctance to address built environment challenges: Policymakers have primarily focused on mitigating isolation and loneliness rather than addressing the underlying built environment challenges of housing and transportation that cause isolation. Soft solutions of participation and social inclusion are less costly, so the more difficult and expensive solutions are being ignored.
- Downloading of responsibility: Policymakers at the state and local levels frequently push responsibility of these issues onto community groups, families, and individuals, and rely on the "self-selection" and organization of community groups to provide this social infrastructure and support to older adults. However, these organizations cannot accomplish everything, meaning people inevitably fall through the cracks.
This study is particularly important because supportive built and social environments are crucial for older adults living alone. It is easy for older adults to experience isolation if they do not have access to mobility and social connection, and this study illuminates that many neighborhoods in greater Melbourne with lower built environment support also experience lower concentrations of social infrastructure.
As a result, it is the responsibility of planners to take action in car-dependent, low accessibility, and low social infrastructure areas to ensure their built environment becomes more age-friendly. To support overlooked communities, Hartt et al. recommend that interventions and funding be specifically allocated for these built environment improvements in auto suburbs and exurbs to ensure a thriving social infrastructure for older adults.
Additionally, they highlight the government's tendency to skirt responsibility for the wellbeing of older adults by placing the onus on community groups and nonprofits, whereas they should be operating in tandem with such groups and filling financial and programmatic gaps.
The Journal of the American Planning Association is the quarterly journal of record for the planning profession. For full access to the JAPA archive, APA members may purchase a discounted digital subscription for $36/year.
Top image: Royalty-free - visualspace
About the author
Anika Murasaki Richter is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.