CENIE · 12 September 2022

Gentrification and old age: what cities will we leave to the elderly?

The future of old age will be urban. Contrary to popular belief, people do not go back to their villages when they are older. This belief stems from the fact that towns are getting older, but this does not mean that they are attracting older people, but rather that they have remained there. Yes, there are exceptions, of course, but it is no longer common to decide to return to the village to spend the last years. This is happening (or has stopped happening) for many reasons, but above all because there are fewer and fewer people left who have a village to return to. 

Among the many changes in old age and ageing, this is one of them: a higher percentage of older people have been urbanites since birth or since they were very young, so that they have spent most of their adult life in a city. For the older people of the future, this will be increasingly true: the vast majority of people will have been born in a city, as smaller municipalities have fewer and fewer births. This has a lot to do with demographic dynamics, but above all with increasing urbanisation: villages are not just disappearing, they are mutating. Some increase in size until they are no longer considered villages. Others disappear, it is true, leaving us without traces of our past and without great cultural legacies, among other issues (key, no doubt, but beyond the scope of this post). 

Returning to the subject we started with: to think that you are going to go to a town you don't know at a time in your life when the environment plays a key role, when you value the presence of acquaintances the most and when perceived security is most important, is hard to believe. More than my own opinion, this is what the older people I have interviewed tell me. The same is true the other way round: it is unusual for a person who has spent their whole life in a village to want to grow old in a city that is unknown to them (although if their children live there, this may be a good reason). 

Not wanting to return to the town with which you no longer have any ties beyond the symbolic ones is neither good nor bad in itself. Another thing will be depopulation and territorial imbalance, which we can talk about on another occasion. We should, in fact. But if we stop associating old age exclusively with rural areas, this brings us to a key fact: the future of old age will be urban. And in the urban future, old age will have more and more weight. Ageing (the numerical ratio of young to old people) in cities will increase. This means that urban environments will have to be prepared for changing needs and for this demographic situation, which is but the manifestation of the great achievement associated with longer life expectancy. Does this mean that cities will be spaces where other ages will not feel comfortable? Not at all. A city prepared for older people is a city prepared for neighbours of all ages and conditions. Designing a city with an age perspective means designing with criteria of inclusion and accessibility, the same safety in space that children and young people, for example, will be able to take advantage of. The failure of cities is to design for cars or for those we want to visit us for a short period of time. 

We say that people will grow old in cities; although staying in the familiar environment (ageing in place) has proven to have many benefits, some people (yourself, perhaps) may wonder whether the city is the most suitable environment in which to grow old and to be old, since it is where many of the social problems that characterise contemporary societies are concentrated. For example, there is a belief that urban environments are spaces without roots, without identity, without neighbourhood solidarity. These descriptions focus on the impersonality of cities, the transience of people, as if cities were a kind of "extended non-places" to which we only go for little more than work-related obligations. There is also talk of the segmentation (or non-existence) of links between city dwellers, lacking social and neighbourhood networks, where it seems that you can fall down (for example) and where no one will help you get up. According to these ideas, cities are described as "soulless". And, above all, heartless. 

I do not share this vision, but I also understand that these manifestations may reflect one's own experience of the city and the environment in which one lives. In this sense, I remember that expert in rural sociology who, when assessing my final master's thesis on social capital in cities, alleged as a criticism that social relations in central neighbourhoods did not exist; "we don't even say hello to each other in my doorway". Another professor, with a different view of the city, said "that's you, you're rude. In my doorway we do greet each other". Well, visions.

In any case, this idea of the city as "lifeless" coexists, fortunately, with images of urban life that emphasise the importance of the local environment as a source of solidarity and other positive experiences of attachment to the place of residence, which in turn benefits us in terms of self-esteem and feelings of inclusion. In fact, it has been shown that for many older women, the neighbourhood can play a fundamental role in their lives (this is not minor; remember that we are and will be older than old, because women live longer). Why? Well, because the neighbourhood becomes the natural setting for interaction, the familiar space and therefore the place for collaborative relationships and where practical and emotional support arises in times of need. 

On this (for me, precious) subject, we have published this article on what it is like to grow old in an urban neighbourhood in the centre of a large city: the Universidad neighbourhood (known as Malasaña), which is in a central area of Madrid (Spain). This neighbourhood has been exposed, for years, to processes of gentrification and touristification, both of which have a very negative effect on older people. 

What is gentrification and how does it affect the quality of life of older people? Gentrification is a change in the population of a territory; the "old" neighbours are replaced by new ones with more purchasing power. The former (the usual ones) are displaced from their neighbourhoods in this process and a process of expulsion and divisions (segregation) of the population in the space is formed. Associated with gentrification and the new approaches to "what a city is" or what it should be and offer, is touristification, which consists of a reorientation (thus, roughly speaking) of the uses and services that a city should offer for its neighbours, towards services and uses that attract tourists. Tourist interest is prioritised over neighbourhood interest, and the city is redefined, so to speak. 

These are very crude descriptions, but perhaps they help us to understand that changes are taking place in the use of dwellings, which cease to house the neighbour who lends you the salt to house some gentlemen you will never see again for a few days, through the reconversion of tourist housing, changes are taking place in the hotel and catering offer and in the type of shops in the neighbourhood. Also in the use that is made of the spaces (we have already talked about bar terraces and benches to sit on). 

In central areas, many residents come and go, for example, students or young people who will be living in the neighbourhood for a while. Generally, where there is more rental housing, there is a higher residential mobility (moving house) than in areas where homeowners live. This makes it more difficult to get to know these neighbours or for them to become an active part of the social fabric of the neighbourhood. This is to be expected: if you spend little time in a place, you seem to be less interested in getting involved in neighbourhood activities. With our lifestyles, there is not much time left, but if you are only going to be there for a short time, we are less inclined to spend some of our scarce time building neighbourhood relationships. Perhaps for this reason we think that there are no quality social relations in the city; in reality, it is we who do not bother to establish such relations, which does not mean that they do not exist among other neighbours. 

To summarise, and to simplify enormously, in addition to other problems associated with or directly generated by gentrification and touristification, these processes make it extremely difficult to create a neighbourhood. This "disappearance" of the neighbourhood has very negative effects for older people. If we replace the residents with tourists, we will not have a neighbourhood association, that goes without saying. Who will complain about the problems in the neighbourhood? Nor will we need services for the residents, nor will the shops be local (why have a bakery if nobody shops there?) which, in the short and long term, destroys the neighbourhood and its commercial fabric and, therefore, its social fabric. There are many other associated problems, but these are the ones that most often affect older people: being surrounded by "ghost dwellings" means having no one to help you in case of need, nor being able to make friends with the tenants. It also means seeing the shop where you used to buy the raw materials for your stew or lentils replaced by a fashion shop. It means having to take the bus to go shopping and seeing the relationships that were established while waiting at the fishmonger's disappear, or seeing the price of basic products rise, because supply decreases as demand decreases. Only the most elite and diversified shops will be able to survive, and it will be easy for older people to feel less at home in their old neighbourhood or even not be able to afford to live there. We sometimes use the expression about whether this is the world we want to leave to our children, to the children of the future. And is this the city we want to leave to the elderly? 


Under the framework of: Programa Operativo Cooperación Transfronteriza España-Portugal
Sponsors: Fundación General de la Universidad de Salamanca Fundación del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas Direção Geral da Saúde - Portugal Universidad del Algarve - Portugal