MULTI AGE PRECINCTS – A RESEARCH-BASED RATIONALE

The term ‘multi age precinct’ (MAP) was devised in Western Australia by FuturePerth and PerthALIVE in early 2014, both community not-for-profit groups interested in broadening the types of accommodation available to Australians and building more resilient communities.[1]

A successful MAP has four key features:

  1. MAPs are large, vibrant mixed-use developments in already established areas.
  2. MAPs comprise at least several hundred dwellings within walking distance of a major transport hub, urban town centre and associated facilities.
  3. MAPs are intentionally intergenerational and include an on-site service provider offering a range of lifestyle and aged care services suited to people of all ages and stages of life.
  4. MAPs focus on social sustainability, with dedicated accommodation for a community hub that encourages positive community engagement by residents of both the precinct development and the local neighbourhood.

While the term MAP is a useful shorthand, the ideas behind this concept can be found in a range of literature, from academic research to the broader media.

Health benefits of a sense of community – findings

  • It is generally accepted that a sense of community contributes to human well-being. As people age they tend to be healthier if they maintain strong family, friendship and community bonds – ageing ‘in place’.  Living in MAPs with access to good public transport offers residents ongoing opportunities to continue with many of their social and community activities.  For those who need some assistance access to an on-site service provider is another measure to allow them to remain within a supportive community.
  • There is a rich body of research that state that strong communities can address one of the maladies of the modern age – loneliness. [2]. There is particular concern about loneliness in the 50+ age group. [3]  Risk factors include social isolation, poverty and poor health.  In the UK the government’s response has been to appoint a minister for loneliness.  Similarly, in Australia more than one-fifth of Australians rarely or never feel they have someone to talk to or turn to for help, and more than one quarter feel lonely for at least three days every week, according to a comprehensive study of loneliness and wellbeing conducted by Swinburne University and the Australian Psychological Society. [4]
  • Canadian research confirms these findings. Ami Rokach, a psychologist at Toronto’s York University who has studied loneliness for more than 30 years reports that loneliness has long been recognised as being bad for a person’s mental health, but research is now showing it can also be physically harmful, affecting not only quality of life, but length of life. Beyond causing heightened rates of depression, anxiety and irritability, loneliness is now being associated with potentially life-shortening health issues such as higher blood pressure, heart disease and obesity.  Some experts have gone as far as to argue that being lonely for a prolonged period is more harmful to a person’s health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.[5]  The City of Vancouver was so concerned about the levels of loneliness experienced in their city, that a taskforce known as Engaged City was established.  Among their findings was the importance of urban planning.[6]
  • Lyndal Bond, et al have conducted research around the relationships between housing, neighbourhoods and positive mental health.[7] This study has shown that for people living in deprived areas, the quality and aesthetics of housing and neighbourhoods are associated with mental wellbeing, but so too are feelings of respect, status and progress that may be derived from how places are created, serviced and talked about by those who live there.  The implication for regeneration activities undertaken to improve housing and neighbourhoods is that it is not just the delivery of improved housing that is important for mental wellbeing, but also the quality and manner of delivery.  The authors note that housing regeneration alone has limited effects.
  • In a recent article in The Guardian, George Monbiot reports on provisional data from a trial in the town of Frome in Somerset (UK) which suggest that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital falls spectacularly. While across the whole of Somerset emergency hospital admissions rose by 29% during the three years of the study, in Frome they fell by 17%. Julian Abel, a consultant physician in palliative care and lead author of the draft paper, remarks: “No other interventions on record have reduced emergency admissions across a population.” Monbiot notes that

The Compassionate Frome project was launched in 2013 by Helen Kingston, a GP.  She kept encountering patients who seemed defeated by the medicalisation of their lives: treated as if they were a cluster of symptoms rather than a human being who happened to have health problems.  Staff at her practice were stressed and dejected by what she calls “silo working”.  So, with the help of the NHS group Health Connections Mendip and the town council, her practice set up a directory of agencies and community groups.  This let them see where the gaps were, which they then filled with new groups for people with particular conditions.  They employed “health connectors” to help people plan their care, and most interestingly trained voluntary “community connectors” to help their patients find the support they needed.  Sometimes this meant handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs or lunch clubs or exercise groups or writing workshops or men’s sheds (where men make and mend things together).  The point was to break a familiar cycle of misery: illness reduces people’s ability to socialise, which leads in turn to isolation and loneliness, which then exacerbates illness. [8]

  • Research also suggests, contrary to popular belief, that busy city centres beat suburban living when it comes to human wellbeing, as socialising and walking make for happier, healthier people. Downtown residents – packed together in tight row houses or apartment blocks – are more active and socially engaged than people who live in the sprawl of suburbia, according to a report that aims to challenge popular beliefs about city life.  The report by Chinmoy Sarkar (Oxford University and the University of Hong Kong) argue that density contributes to building community and, thus, improved health outcomes.  In 22 British cities people living in built-up residential areas had lower levels of obesity and exercised more than residents in scattered, suburban homes.  People are less dependent on cars and use public transport more.  Walking made the biggest difference and social interaction and physical activity thrived best in compact communities. [9] Healthier living has the potential to provide long term economic savings to Government budgets for a relatively small short-term investment through employment of a community hub coordinator to build community through establishment of social networks. These are known to support better health.  Of course, it is important to demonstrate the value of such an investment.  Certainly, this is the approach taken by LinkWest.  They offer to Neighbourhood and community Resource Centres a tested means to measure social outcomes through results based accountability (RBA).  RBA is a process of continuous improvement with a results focus.  (See https://www.linkwest.asn.au/about-us/completed-projects/results-based-accountability).  A local trial in Western Australia in 2013-14 confirmed the value of this process.  The evaluation results are presented in a summary one-page report which can point the way to further improvement.

Perth-based benefits study – findings

There are further potential economic benefits to a MAP which can potentially incorporate an economic hub for local residents and create additional employment and economic growth.

A major question, of course, is whether MAPs are a useful direction to pursue in the West Australian context.  In considering this, reference to a 2016 report by SGS Economics and Planning is useful.  SGS was contracted by the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority (MRA) to conduct research into intergenerational living or multi age precincts (MAPs) and to recommend options for multi age living based on best practice and specific demands for the local context.  This was done within the MRA vision of transforming Perth into a vibrant, connected city that can meet the needs of its growing population.

The report[10] notes that while the term intergenerational living is a more commonly used term, their research concluded that MAP is the more appropriate term as it refers to intentionally planned communities with a high level of age diversity.  Intergenerational living, on the other hand, mostly refers to organically grown communities often organised around familial relationships between different generations.

The research identified, based on international best practice, and expert and stakeholder interviews, eight key best practice elements for MAPs:

  1. age and social diversity;
  2. transit oriented development (TOD) principles – location close to transit and services (compact, well-connected to public transport, walkability, retail and a wide range of services);
  3. housing diversity (in terms of tenure and size);
  4. housing affordability;
  5. adaptable housing and universal accessibility
  6. private shared spaces, assets and services (within development);
  7. public shared spaces (accessible to wider public); and
  8. facilitative governance arrangements, hard wired and/or softer community-based planning.

It identifies housing diversity (in terms of the number of bedrooms) as particularly important in avoiding a monoculture.  It notes that medium density development in areas such as Subiaco have a particularly high level of one bedroom apartments.

The report suggests a number of reasons for this lack of diversity and also notes that the inclusions of MAP success factors such as common spaces and shared public infrastructure will carry an additional cost compared to conventional redevelopment.  Their high-level feasibility analysis, however, suggests that the developer’s margin would likely be reduced by only 4%, from 28% to 24%.  They conclude that the development would remain feasible even if land values remain unchanged.[11]

German multi-generational housing

Multi-generational housing in Germany – the Mehrgenerationenhaus, literally ‘multigeneration houses’[12], is seen as a solution to two pressing social issues: population ageing and expensive childcare[13] .  One typical “multigeneration house” is a kindergarten, a social centre for the elderly and somewhere young families can drop in for coffee and advice.  Pensioners volunteer to read books to the children once a week and run a “rent-a-granny” service to relieve exhausted parents. In return, teenagers offer to show elderly people how to use computers and mobile phones.

British report, Generation Strain, notes that “Multigenerational houses are a key part of Germany’s ageing population plan … In the years ahead, these approaches will not be a ‘nice to have’ but a necessity, as families will need an extra helping hand to cope with caring responsibilities and pressure grows to contain the rising public costs of health and social care.” [14]

Student-style housing blocks for pensioners are also increasingly popular in Germany, and some of them actively try to keep a balance of young families and the elderly.  A recent report suggested co-habitation could reduce the cost of care for the over-50s by 30-50% per head.  Yet until now such projects have been largely run as cooperatives, with no serious support from the state.

“Co-habitation projects could be the future for ageing countries in Europe,” said Andrea Tollner, who advises local governments on the creation of new housing projects.  “But the key is to remind people they can always close their door if they want.  They’re not going back to student flatshares but separate living units”.

Action programme Multi-Generational Centres[15]

The German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth founded the Action Programme Multi-Generational Centres in 2006 in order to find and implement solutions for the challenges of the future.  These challenges include demographic change, the demands of the workplace, and cultural diversity.  No longer do many generations live together under one roof.  Mobility and flexibility often create stress for many people.  They may also long for a sense of community, stable social relationships and familial cohesion.  Longer life expectancy is likely to offer people an average of 20 more years of healthy and active life after retirement.  Many seniors want to make good use of this time to benefit both themselves and others.  Younger people are often looking for advice and guidance or want to be more active.

Now nearly all districts (Landkreise) and cities (kreisfreie Städte) nationwide have their own Multi-Generational Centre.  The German government claims Intergenerational Centres are not intended as a replacement for proper social services, but as an attempt to recreate the kind of social networks that have withered away since it has become rare for generations of the same family to live in the same house or even in the same city.  The Centres are only allowed to spend half of their annual budget on salaries, in order to encourage the use of volunteers.  These Centres have a number of features.

  1. Multi-Generational Centres are central meeting places, where social cohesion between the generations is actively promoted. They offer room for joint activities and promote a sense of community in the municipality.  While some Centres have integrated multi-generational housing into their field of activities, the Multi-Generational Centres are not exclusively housing projects.  There is a cross-generational approach by which the young and the elderly come together during activities of the Centre, in order to help each other, learn from each other and spend time together – whether during recreational activities, formal events or informally at the open meeting place. The interaction between generations promotes the development of everyday skills and knowledge, improves social integration and strengthens social cohesion – outside of family settings.
  2. Multi-Generational Centres develop their services based on the needs in their municipality. However, the four key areas defined as part of the Action Programme also provide a common framework so that all Centres have similar structures.  In this manner, the 450 Multi-Generational Centres have a strong foundation base on which they can develop their activities and services. People of all ages and all (cultural) backgrounds volunteer at the 450 nationwide Centres.  Those interested can also take advantage of the diverse services and activities of the Centres.  These include educational and creative activities for children and youth, educational courses for those interested in re-entering the labour market after a parental or family leave, care and support services for the elderly and for persons suffering from dementia as well as their family members, language courses for migrants and much more. The key areas of the Action Programme are:
  • aging and long-term elderly care;
  • integration and education;
  • household services; and
  • voluntary work.
  1. People of all ages and all backgrounds have the possibility to volunteer in the Multi-Generational Centres. Working voluntarily in the Centres opens up many opportunities for the volunteers, enabling them to strengthen their social and professional skills.  In this manner the Centres promote labour market integration in general as well as the integration of migrants in particular.  Services promoting the integration of migrants have recently gained importance.  Many Centres and the volunteers who work in them are actively involved in helping refugees. The Centres establish binding and long-term partnerships with the various players in their municipalities.  These include associations, cultural and educational institutions, foundations, volunteer agencies, the media and local businesses. In this manner the Centres are an inherent part of the social infrastructure and a key player in the coordination of voluntary work.
  2. The Centres receive comprehensive support and advice regarding the content of the Action Programme, as well as the financial and structural framework. The service agency is the central partner that advises the Centres and supports networking activities. They offer the Centres support via telephone and e-mail as well as, in certain cases, directly at the Centres.  Furthermore, they organise the transfer of know-how and the networking between individual projects.  The PR agency supports the Centres with local and national press work.  The service centre for funding supports the Centres with financial issues.  In addition, the Ministry has commissioned an external monitoring and formative evaluation of the Action Programme, which plays an important role in identifying key factors for the success of the Multi-Generational Centres and aspects of the Action Programme that could be improved.  This is done on the basis of a monitoring system for the individual Centres, surveys on a regular basis and case studies.  The results are communicated directly to the Centres and are integrated into further support of the Centres through the Action Programme.  In this manner the successful efforts of the Centres can be optimized continuously.
  3. Each of the 450 Centres participating in the Action Programme Multi-Generational Centres of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth from 2012 until 2016 received an annual grant of 40,000: 30,000 from the federal government and 10,000 from the municipality, district (Landkreis) or federal state (Bundesland). The federal government aims to secure the work of the Multi-Generational Centres for the long-term.  In a framework agreement the federal states and the central municipal associations have agreed to work together to support the Multi- Generational Centres.  Furthermore, the cabinet resolution regarding the federal budget for 2016 and the financial plan for 2015 – 2019 mark important steps towards the long-term funding of the Centres.

The Participatory City – UK model and findings

The Participatory City model is based on the assumption that participation in practical everyday activities transforms people’s lives and the neighbourhoods in which they live.  Participatory City amplifies the scale of these activities, grows new projects and builds support platforms.  Its supporters believe it has the potential to impact on many serious interconnected social problems.

Participatory City is based on the research documented in the report ‘Designed to Scale – Mass participation to build resilient neighbourhoods’ which describes how Lambeth Council and Civic Systems Lab formed The Open Works team to co-create a network of 20 practical projects with 1000 local residents.  These projects were inspired by ideas from across the world that offered the potential to support a new and more sustainable way to live our everyday lives.

The key finding of this work has been that increasing participation in practical everyday activities to high levels could help to transform people’s lives and the neighbourhoods in which those people live.  While this new type of ‘participation culture’ remains unsupported, small scale and fragmented, it will continue to be only an optimistic flickering of a brighter future, without fully realising its potential to be a key building block for building sustainable cities of the future.

Resources available on the Participatory City model include The Illustrated Guide to Participatory City and an evaluation report (Made to Measure) conducted after one year of its implementation in Dagenham and Barking in the UK.  The evaluation criteria and research questions are summarised in the table below.[16]

Evaluation Criteria Questions Key Findings at Year 1
Feasibility Can a large collaborative participatory ecosystem be built through this approach?

 

The findings set out in this report suggest compelling evidence that this systems approach to building large scale participation is feasible and that it is working in Barking and Dagenham.
Inclusivity Can a participatory ecosystem be built that creates large bridging networks that can benefit everyone?

 

The findings set out in this report show that the early indications are that this approach to creating bridging networks will work in Barking and Dagenham.  However it is too early to draw overall conclusions as it will require a longer period of time for networks to develop and further evidence to be gathered.
Value creation Is this systems approach to building participation capable of creating value for individual residents, neighbourhoods and the borough as a whole?  Is this value quantifiable and capable of informing long-term public and philanthropic investment decisions?

 

At the end of Year 1, there is a range of qualitative and quantitative data indicating that the systems approach is delivering value at the individual and neighbourhood level. These findings are at early stage and it is not possible yet to quantify the economic impact they are having upon individual residents, nor the accumulated effect boroughwide.  This will be reported on more fully in Year 2 onwards.
Systemic integration Can the new participatory ecosystem be fully integrated into the local context of services, business and other activities?

 

Replicability Can a learning framework be developed and tested in order that another borough or city can successfully replicate the systems approach?

 

CoHousing – a growing option in Australia

  • Other approaches in housing include cohousing for seniors. Research in this area has been conducted by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney.  Their report describes cohousing as a form of community living that contains a mix of private and communal spaces, combining autonomy and privacy with the advantages of community living.  It can occur at a variety of scales, from multi-unit developments to small, self-organised clusters of 2-3 households.
  • In a recent article in The Conversation, Fatemah Yavari and Brenda Vale comment on their research on housing options for those 65+. They see it as increasingly important to have appropriate housing that allows older people to remain in their familiar communities and “age in place” for as long as possible. However, experience in a number of countries suggests that housing for many people in this age group is far from appropriate.  Their research explores different design solutions to convert existing housing into shared living spaces for people approaching their later years.[17]
  • There are reports of individuals doing something similar at an individual/group level. Individuals who have been living alone choose to share accommodation in their senior years, thus creating their own community.  This cohousing model means sharing the bills and the responsibilities of the house, like cleaning and maintenance.[18]  Such individuals hope to build a community of fellow retirees who could age together, and support one another, even as spouses passed away.  It would be a way out of the typical choice between “isolation and institutionalization”.  In the words of one such person, “We want to build a robust and resilient community while we’re still robust and resilient so that we can age in place along with others and enjoy life to the fullest.”[19]
  • Communities in large apartment buildings can evolve around things like community gardens, a form of ‘sticky space’ – communal areas that invite people to stick around and help form connections. While this might be considered a form of ‘hard’ infrastructure (other examples include ‘inviting’ spaces like sky-bars, hang-out spaces on different floors and cafes – anything that invites people to linger), ‘soft’ infrastructure such as organized events and shared communication portals are also vital.[20]

Optimal options for retirement in Australia

For good quality of life as one ages, there must be optimal retirement options.  The default is to stay in one’s current home for as long as possible, or downsize.  Some will settle into the quiet life of a retirement village on the urban fringes.

But a growing number of retirees who are leading a more active retirement, perhaps still working part-time, want to live closer to the bright lights of the city in accommodation which shares similarities with what PerthALIVE has described as a MAP.  This form of retirement living is becoming more common in cities around Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the US, driven by well-heeled baby boomers.

In Australia the chair of the NSW inquiry into retirement villages, Kathryn Greiner, recently recommended integrating designated seniors’ apartments in medium or high-rise residential developments where people of all ages live.  Experts have described such retirement communities as the “way of the future”.

The number of such communities are increasing in inner-urban areas around Australia . Many offer ready access to the kinds of amenities inner-city dwellers have grown accustomed to including smart technologies and proactive health management allowing people to stay healthy and live independently at an advanced age, forestalling the time when a move to aged care becomes necessary.

Although some express concerns about increasing density, traffic congestion, or increases in social isolation, when managed well in an architectural and town planning sense, vertical communities can offer high quality living while occupying a smaller urban footprint.  They can help reverse the urban sprawl of Australian cities, which are among the largest and least densely settled in the world.

People want to live out their days in the freedom of their own home, not in an institution, no matter how benevolent.  And it’s in the national interest to relieve pressure on the public health system.  Emerging health-optimising technology and vertical communities can enable this.  It’s a win-win.[21]

Working at the local level

In the United Kingdom an action research project supported by the Friends Provident Foundation has focused on the importance of the local level.  Their report, Keep it Local for Economic Resilience, is directed towards achieving positive social change in an environment of deep inequalities, complex problems, continued austerity, and declining faith in political institutions.  It argues that local governments should marry their resources with the power and innovation in the community in order to create a fair society.  This requires reversing the trend towards outsourcing services to large multinational companies and big national charities where public money leaks out of the local area.  By spending those resources in the local area it is of broader benefit to the community.  Their motto has become Keep it Local.  By commissioning local community organisations to provide local services, councils can simultaneously create better, more responsive services build a fairer, more resilient local economy.[22]

[1] Murray, M., Saggers, J., & van Bockxmeer, J. (2014) Multi-age precints (MAPs) – new solutions for the future if Australia’s housing. New Community, 12(2), 53-58

[2] Holwerda, T., Van Tillburg, T.G., Deeg, D.J.H., et al. (2016). Impact of loneliness and depression on mortality, The British Journal of Psychiatry 209 (2) 127-134

[3] Denis, Campbell, “Loneliness among over.50s ‘is looming public health concern’”, The Guardian, 25 September 2018

[4] Australian Loneliness Report: A survey exploring the loneliness levels of Australians and the impact on their health and wellbeing. (2018) The Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University of Technology. Retrieved from: https://psychweek.org.au/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Psychology-Week-2018-Australian-Loneliness-Report-1.pdf

[5] Perlita Stroh, “Feeling lonely? You’re not alone – and it could be affecting your physical health”, CBC News, 19 January 2019

[6] Ashifa Kassam, “Is Vancouver lonelier than most cities or just better about addressing it?”, The Guardian, 4 April 2017

[7] “Exploring the relationships between housing, neighbourhoods and mental wellbeing for residents of deprived areas”, BMC Public Health. 2012; 12: 48.

[8] George Monbiot, “The town that’s found a potent cure for illness – community”, The Guardian, 21 February 2018

[9] The Guardian, “Inner city living makes for healthier, happier people, study finds”, 6 October 2017

[10] SGS Economics and Planning.  Intergenerational Living:  Multi-Age Precincts (Final Report), Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority, July 2016

[11] Anecdotal evidence from developers in the Claremont on the Park suggest that the PerthALIVE MAP requirement, an on-site provider, has been useful for marketing purposes.

[12] Philip Oltermann, “Germany’s ‘multigeneration houses’ could solve two problems for Britain”, The Guardian, 2 May 2014

[13] Labit, A., Dubost, N., (2016) Housing and ageing in France and Germany: the intergenerational solution, Housing, Care and Support. 19 (2) 45-54

[14] IPPR – The Progressive Policy Think Tank. Retrieved from https://www.ippr.org/search?search=ageing%2C+housing&page_search=2

[15] Bundesministerium fur Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend, “Action Programme Multi-Generational Centres: What is it about?”

[16] Tessy Britton, The Illustrated Guide to Participatory City; Made to Measure:  Building a Participatory Ecosystem in Barking and Dagenham through the Every One Every Day initiative, Year 1 Report.

[17] Fatemah Yavari and Brenda Vale, “Flatting in retirement: how to provide suitable and affordable housing for ageing people”, The Conversation, 30 August 2018

[18] Kas Roussy, “How these ‘Golden Girls’ beat the odds of loneliness”, CBC News, 21 December 2018

[19] “This retired couple is refusing to let condo living be their ‘final destination”, Out in the Open: CBC Radio, 8 December 2018

[20] Melissa Howard, “The residents busting the myth that apartments lack a sense of community”, Domain, 8 August 2018

[21] David Tuffley, “Vertical retirement villages are on the rise, and they’re high-tech too”, The Conversation, 27 June 2018

[22] Friends Provident Foundation, Locality:  Keep it Local for Economic Resilience, 2017; Locality Impact Report, 2016