Housing design for an age-friendly society

When building homes for older people there are key elements urban planners and architects have to take into consideration. Among those are green parks and homes with high levels of accessibility. But how is it achieved? And what are the obstacles?

The home environment and the activities related to daily coping are basis of the general wellbeing at any age. The housing design and neighbourhood planning that takes into account various resident groups may support older people in their daily life. In all Nordic countries, the care services for older people promote living at home for as long as possible. The care service policy presume that people prepare for their old age and get the support they need.

However, the existing housing stock does not always support the resident. The physical condition and social situation of people vary during the life course and the built environment need to support the wellbeing and independence of people with different functioning capacities. In Europe in urban areas, between 2000 and 2015, the older population has increased by 26 % (and only 2 % in rural areas) (un, 2015). The population projections show that the older population is increasing and it is getting older.

Therefore, architects and urban planners have an important task to design apartments and neighbourhoods suitable for all age groups. However, older people are a heterogeneous group of people and most of them want to maintain their way of living. Therefore, the mainstream housing design should focus on designing for “us” instead of designing for “them” (Clarkson & Coleman, 2013). Housing design, transportation and neighbourhood planning can enhance social and physical activities of persons who live in their own homes at very old age or with disabilities.

On the other hand, the hindrances in the built environment may result to increasing needs for home care services and assistance at home. Many obstacles caused by reduced physical and sensory functioning capacities can be lessened by universal design of the built environment. The universal design aims at solutions that are suitable to the greatest extent possible to all people.

Studies focusing on the features of the built environment that promote daily coping at old age have been carried out in Aalto University, Department of Architecture at Sotera Institute. This article contains material from case studies that were implemented in a real-life context on the perimeter of Helsinki city centre in Finland.

Urban planners have a task to design neighbourhoods suitable for all age groups.

Each case study involved older residents as key informants of their own living environment and neighbourhood. Qualitative methods like workshops, observational walking tours, interviews and questionnaires were used to study older populations housing environment. These mixed methods enabled to get in-depth knowledge of the challenges in everyday life.

A walking friendly neighbourhood promote physical activity and may increase the sense of integration within a community. Earlier studies indicate, that walking is a more important mode of travel than public transportation for the persons in the age group + 80 (Roosenbloom, 2001). It may be more sustainable sources of exercise for older adults than activity centres (Chaudhury et al, 2016). Moreover, our studies revealed that nine persons out of ten over 85 years old used taxis to access services.

The case study areas varied from a neighbourhood to sheltered housing and further, to a group home for people with Alzheimer’s disease. The participation of older residents was emphasised in all three case studies. Their knowledge and self-reported experiences were gathered to gain further knowledge on housing design supporting independent coping during different stages of life.

Housing design, accessibility of services and public transport are features of urban environment that may enhance wellbeing and inclusion of older residents. Architects can create spaces to facilitate social relationships in the neighbourhood and make sure that the design of the built environment does not exclude any of the resident groups. The mainstream housing developments with attention to a variety of residents will enhance living at home at old age.

Moreover, the demographic development includes also reflections on social integration and feeling of loneliness. In Finland, two thirds of people over 75 years old are female and more than half of them live alone. Moreover, increasing number of older persons is giving informal care to their partner (Linnosmaa et al, 2014).

They need support and may also feel alone if they are not able to have any social contacts with other persons. In Sweden and in Finland over 90 % of persons 75 years old and older live in ordinary housing. However, most of the existing apartment buildings as well as single-family houses lack accessibility. They have been built before any laws or regulations on accessibility.

Older people are not always able to find an affordable apartment that suits their capacities.

Moreover, older people are not always able to find an affordable apartment that suits to their functioning capacities. On the other hand, the home health care services may convert a home to a place for care. Statistics indicate, that old age, being a women, living alone and having a disability are factors that increase the tendency to relocate to an extra care housing or a “trygghetsboende”.

The workshop discussions with older residents participating in the case studies indicated that the length of residency was related to the familiarity of the living environment, which give residents a sense of security, and supported their activities in daily life.

Older people who knew well their neighbourhood were reporting to use the local services daily or several times a week. Whereas persons, who had moved to a sheltered housing from other parts of the city, were reluctant to go out alone. Daily radius may also get smaller with declining health. Courtyards are natural spaces for social encounters with neighbours and older people were reporting to go there daily. However, they did not find much to do there. Courtyards could become common living rooms for residents of all ages with sitting areas, urban farming and outdoor games.

Multigenerational urban plot in the Jätkäsaari area in Helsinki (finished in 2017) provides also housing for seniors, students and for persons with disabilities. Foto: Ira Verma

Street hierarchy, direct connections to destinations and visual landmarks enhance walking and wayfinding. Moreover, access to public spaces and green areas enhanced possibilities for cross-generational contacts. Spaces like libraries, coffee shops and grocery shops may become important places for social activities in the neighbourhood. In one of the case study areas, the local shoemaker was famous for his costumer friendliness and older people appreciated the personal service given by the hairdressers. Many small retail shopkeepers had adjusted their services for older clients.

The results indicated that the older residents used the local services that were the most accessible ones. Frail people with high care needs need to be included in the neighbourhood as well. Collaboration with local service providers, schools, cafés and restaurants can offer a variety of activities to the residents in sheltered housing.

The neighbourhood design, public transport network and proximity of green environment influence the mobility of older people. Earlier studies indicated that older persons use public transport more often for short distances than younger seniors (Föbker & Grotz, 2006).

The residents in the workshops described that even if they were able to walk to the grocery shop, they were not able to carry the heavy groceries back home and therefore, needed to take a bus. They also used public transport to access activities in the centre of the city.

Green parks with activities enhanced natural cross-generational social encounters.

The loss or change of local transport connections may decrease mobility and social activities. The changes in local transport connections caused anxiety in older people participating in our study. Any changes in transport network would need to take into consideration local population structure and the location of existing housing services for older population.

During this study, the observation on site revealed, however, that the accessibility alone does not enhance social activities and inclusion. Versatile neighbourhood environment and green parks with various activities enhanced natural cross-generational social encounters.

The features of sustainable urban design comprehend compactness of urban form, mix of land use, density, diversity and green parks. The age-friendly design of built environment focus on same aspects of cities and is complementaryto these features. Compactness and density relate to short walking distances, and mix of land use to the access to local services.

Moreover, sustainable design requires attention to diversity of the environmental features in the city, whereas universal design highlights the diversity of people using the urban spaces. A comprehensive design of housing, urban spaces, local services and public transportation enhance the daily coping of all persons.


Chaudhury. H., Campo, M., Michael, Y. & Mahmood. (2016). Neighbourhood environment and physical activity in older adults. Social Science & Medicine, 149, pp. 104–113.

Clarkson, P. and Coleman, R. (2015). History of Inclusive Design in the UK. Applied Ergonomics, 46 (part B), pp. 235-247.

Föbker, S. & Grotz, R. (2006). Everyday mobility of elderly people in different urban settings: The example of the city of Bonn, Germany. Urban Studies, 43(1), pp. 99–118.

Linnosmaa, I., Jokinen, S., Vilkko, A., Noro, A. & Siljander, E. (2014). Support for Informal Care: Report on the Fees and Services of Informal Care Support in Municipalities in 2012. Report 2014:9. Helsinki. National Institute for Health and Welfare.

Roosenbloom, S. (2001). Sustainability and automobility among the elderly: An international assessment. Transportation, 28, pp. 375–408.

United Nations. (2015). World Population Ageing 2015. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. (ST/ESA/SER.A/390).

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