Creating opportunities for mixed age communities in new urban hotspots

7 March 2019

With towns and cities across the UK looking to invest in large scale regeneration projects as the demand for city centre living increases, Nigel Saunders from Pozzoni Architecture, the practice behind the new dementia care village at Wirral Waters, discusses why more should be done to incorporate the older generation in new urban hotspots…

Look at any of the UK’s major towns and cities and you’ll find pockets of large-scale regeneration, developing either completely new districts or building on existing neighbourhoods to give them a whole new lease of life. Within these schemes you’ll see issues such as the lack of Grade A office space and the undersupply of housing being addressed with shiny new office blocks and build to rent apartment towers, maybe even quirky townhouses for those looking to bring family life to the city. But these schemes are generally aimed at professionals and the younger generations who are looking to live and work within the heart and buzz of a bustling urban environment. They rarely offer something for older generations, people who may be looking to retire or downsize but still want access to a range of amenities and maybe someone on hand if they need a little extra support.

An ageing population

Our ageing population is a growing challenge in the UK, with the percentage of people aged 65 and over set to reach 23 per cent by 2025, an increase from 17 per cent in 2010. It’s no surprise then that the senior living sector, and the demand for purpose-built accommodation for the elderly, continues to grow. But how often do you see new housing developments aimed specifically for this older generation in the middle of a city or a major urban regeneration masterplan? Sadly, the answer is probably not often enough, despite the fact that people are remaining both healthier and economically active for longer.

Pozzoni has submitted a planning application for a new dementia care village for Belong at Wirral Waters, a vast 500-acre regeneration site in Birkenhead, just across the River Mersey from Liverpool city centre. The scheme was unveiled at MIPIM last year and we expect to hear more about its progress this year. Delivered by Peel, the wider site will become a truly mixed-use scheme, with offices, industrial, retail, leisure, residential and education developments all part of the masterplan. But having a dementia village that can cater for a spectrum of abilities not only part of the development, but one of the first projects to be submitted for planning at Wirral Waters, isn’t perhaps what you’ve traditionally come to expect of large-scale regeneration schemes in prime urban locations.

But developments for older people shouldn’t be thought of in isolation, it’s time to look at places such as Oslo and Amsterdam, where they take a progressive and inclusive approach to housing for the elderly and adopt this in the UK. We need to be thinking beyond the parameters of individual developments too. It’s time for planners, designers and policy makers to come together and create a vision for what an ‘age-friendly’ town or city in the UK would look like so that we are taking an intergenerational approach and not just focusing on attracting young professionals.

Creating communities

Creating opportunities for older people to live in integrated, engaging communities where they can socialise and feel included within the local community is something that we’re passionate about. Although a quiet retirement in the country might suit some, our experience in this sector shows that living in vibrant towns and cities, in complexes that offer opportunities to socialise and stay active, plays a big role in supporting residents’ mental and physical wellbeing. Something as seemingly simple as having more appropriately designed benches around a city can make a big difference to encourage people to get out and about, knowing they can take a break if needed.

So, with a growing ageing population and evidence to show that being part of active communities can prevent physical and mental health problems, why don’t we see more of this type of development taking place? Personally, I think it comes down to two things, firstly it’s an image thing. Perhaps people think that if they bring in housing specifically catering to over 65s then it will disrupt the ‘street cred’ of the area? Secondly, I think there are misconceptions about what people want from their retirement housing and there’s a traditional view that older people don’t want to be living in busy urban areas. But as more people chose to live in cities during their working lives, we are seeing a growing trend of them wanting to stay in these communities as they get older too.

One way or another, we need more choice in housing dedicated to older people that can cater to their sometimes complex and changing needs. It would be great to see more regeneration sites like Wirral Waters committing to housing for the elderly and hopefully we’ll see more developments that create opportunities for mixed age communities on planning applications in the near future.

As we countdown to MIPIM 2019 and we look ahead to what we predict will be some of the trending themes of the conference, we expect to see an increase in exposure and interest in the senior living sector.