Fresh approaches to older people’s housing: Insights from overseas

Our latest guest Spotlight is from Matt Lally, Associate Director at Arup. A specialist in urban planning and placemaking, Matt recently returned from an assignment in Sydney where Arup colleagues have been developing an Index for Age Friendly Cities. Following a great presentation at our roundtable on the middle market in older people’s housing, Matt has condensed his insights into this blog post:

Concepts like ‘retirement villages’ and ‘nursing homes’ seem increasingly outmoded. For generations brought up on punk, hip hop or indie, it’s not just that the images these facilities conjure up are pretty depressing, but that the age-segregated worlds they promote represent a form of isolationism that many of us would seek to avoid.

As we figure out how best to accommodate our ageing population, we can draw inspiration and insights from case studies from around the world. Here are four projects to get us thinking:

Toyoshiki-dai, Kashiwa City, Japan

Japan has a “super-ageing” society; by 2065, over 38% of the population will be over 65. Toyoshiki-dai, a large social housing estate built in the 1960s, mirrors the national trend: 40% of residents are over 55 and struggle with the development’s five storeys of stairs. The lack of social infrastructure limits residents access to sunlight, society and exercise.

To tackle these challenges, University of Tokyo’s Institute of Gerontology, the Urban Renaissance Agency and the local authority are collaborating to on a progressive approach to regeneration. They are developing an age-friendly community model that can be tested and rolled out across Japan’s social housing estates.

The renewal programme tackles physical barriers through refurbishment and modification. Improvements, such as the introduction of lifts, focus on access.

Images: Safiah Moore, Arup. Housing blocks after renovation (left), an interpretation panel (centre) and blocks before the programme (right)

The supporting community infrastructure comprises three tiers:

  1. A livable physical environment

New bike lanes and Sustainable Urban Drainage systems promote livability. Social and environmental sustainability features are integrated throughout, with panels explaining how they work.

  1. A social participation support system

Through the “working places for a second life” scheme, older people are involved in the everyday workings of the local community. Initiatives include a community farm, a roof garden, a mini “vegetable factory” and community eatery.

  1. An integrated community care system

A home healthcare system is being trialled to promote senior independent living. Simultaneously, retirees support families by running an after-school programme.

Image: Safiah Moore, Arup. Diagram conveying Toyoshiki-dai’s approach to “working places for the Second Life” 

The whole approach centres on asking the community what they want and facilitating this through imaginative governance structures and partnership arrangements.

Tertianum Residenz St. Jakob-Park, Basel, Switzerland

The UK has mixed-use stadiums: there are mixed-tenure apartments built alongside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and Stadium MK even has an integrated hotel. FC Basel’s St Jakob-Park in Switzerland is a cut above.

“St Jakob Park, Basel, Switzerland” by SteHLiverpool is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Swiss complex comprises offices, shops and a range of different apartment types, including Swiss Prime Site (SPS)’s Tertianum Residenz, a residential scheme for older people. The scheme’s 107 two- and three-bedroom apartments (90 self-care and 17 high-care) are arranged over six floors, above a shopping mall and directly adjacent to the stadium. Elderly residents enjoy a sunny, south-facing aspect in a well location well served by public transport, 2km from the city centre.

Humanitas Bergweg, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Also challenging norms is the Bergweg residential care complex. This integrated block includes 195 apartments, several day-care centres within a compact urban environment. The complex also boasts a small dementia unit and ‘memory museum’. The approach is said to reflect the philosophy of Hans Becker, the founder of Humanitas: “moving from a focus on cure and care, which create ‘islands of misery’, to a focus on happiness”.[1]

“Blommers Dijkselaan/Bergweg” by Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A central atrium, known as a ‘sheltered village square’, forms the internal focus. It provides a versatile space incorporating a bar, a restaurant, communal space, information centre. A small library, meeting space and internet café welcome people from outside. The development decouples housing from care – leasing and selling lifetime apartments, to meet a range of low to high needs.


Solinsieme Wohnfabrik, St Gallen, Switzerland

The Wohnfabrik Solinsieme project is a four-storey block of 17 low-cost apartments for seniors. The scheme was cooperatively developed: residents pooled private funds for their apartments and a share in the communal areas. Residents are required to be over 50, though the majority are in their 60s and 70s.

Located close to the centre of town, Solinsieme Wohnfabrik has been imaginatively designed within the shell of an old embroidery factory. Internally, apartments are easily modifiable. Facilities include large community room with kitchen bar facilities, a communal guest room, meeting room, a leasable training room and a laundry/utility room. A wheelchair-accessible communal roof terrace features solar panels to power communal areas and hot water.

Insights and observations

These case studies profile different approaches to senior urban living. In contrast to the “ship them off to the ‘burbs” approach, they all consist of relatively high-density, mixed-use development on fairly central sites that provide a highly walkable or wheelable urban environment served by public transport. Each was procured differently, but they share an imaginative approach to urban governance. Their facilities and management focus on well-rounded health and wellbeing, supported by a variety of ‘social infrastructure’. Thoughtful, human-centred urban design and architecture gets the simple things right – good daylight and flexible, personal internal spaces. Communal and external spaces provide opportunities for social interaction that are often deliberately intergenerational in nature. This is the antithesis of the institutional approach that so often lacks soul and humanity.

We’ll be thinking about these models and lessons as we move into the final stages of our Ageing Cities programme. Stay up to date with FoL’s work on good environments for ageing here.

[1]A Vision for Care Fit for the Twenty-First Century…’ A Report by the Commission on Residential Care prepared by Demos, 2014.