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How do we sustain multigenerational communities in London?

“We often hear about stepping outside ourselves, but rarely about stepping outside our generation.” Criss Jami, Killosophy

Multigenerational communities – places where people of all ages live, work and play – are desirable from several perspectives. They promote health and wellbeing -- active, involved older adults with close intergenerational connections consistently report much less depression, better physical health, and higher degrees of life satisfaction. They tend to be happier with their present life and more hopeful for the future. Community ties are strengthened when young and old learn from each other and develop respect for each other’s changing needs.

For many young people, multigenerational communities define their approach to relationships and community building as adults. Strong Towns researcher Daniel Herriges describes his experience growing up:

“for a kid, a neighborhood with this kind of range of ages and walks of life is a rewarding social opportunity, a series of lessons in empathy and generosity, and a chance to learn about the world through others' eyes. For my wife, some nights it was impromptu dinner with Martha and her family. The older couple across the street and four houses down had a Japanese garden with a koi pond in the backyard, and my future wife was swiftly enlisted to help care for the fish. Other neighbors had memorabilia from foreign travels, and no shortage of stories to share. There were always attentive eyes at living-room windows providing free supervision for kid shenanigans, and usually someone who could be cajoled into chaperoning a trip to the neighborhood diner for an order of fries.”

He continues

“for those on the other side of the equation, a neighborhood with a wide range of ages and walks of life also comes with its own very tangible, even quantifiable, rewards. Longtime residents in their 70s and 80s who might have struggled physically to keep up with the requirements of homeownership got the assistance they needed—the kids were invariably drafted, for example, to shovel elderly neighbors' sidewalks and rake their leaves, and were strictly forbidden by their parents to accept payment (except in the form of cookies). It was not at all uncommon for neighbors to pick up and drop off medication or meals for each other. The adult children of aging empty-nesters can derive no small amount of comfort from knowing that familiar faces are keeping an eye on their loved ones from day to day."

A recent study published in BMC Public Health evaluated the effectiveness of intergenerational contact in enhancing social capital at a population level, by examining a community-based intervention to increase the frequency of intergenerational contact on social capital among adults aged 25–84 years.

The researchers found that intergenerational contact significantly increased three key measures of social capital -- social trust, norm of reciprocity, and social support -- in the local communities they studied.

London is a city that celebrates its diversity and continually strives to integrate people of all backgrounds into its communities. But it faces real challenges in achieving diversity in age, and this has been exposed in recent months as bottlenecks in housing provision are placing pressure on the number and location of children and young families and on the other end of the generational spectrum on the mobility of older folks. The outcome we must avoid is a depletion of young families and a clustering of older residents.

The reduction of children in the capital has been discussed a lot recently, and plainly manifested in recent school closures.

The Guardian reported in January of impending school closures across London, citing a report from London Councils that found 29 of 32 London boroughs reporting an expected sharp fall in children entering reception classes. Last month, it reported on actual closures of primary school closures in several London boroughs, citing a range of underlying factors driving this and warning that “a city without children is not some kind of dystopia but the new reality as communities are hollowed out”.

The Centre for London presented data on the growth of households with both no children and non-dependent ones (adult offspring living at home with parents), focusing on the high costs of housing and childcare as a key driver.

More recently. ITV News reported on the cost of living pushing young families out of London and the impact this is having on London’s schools. And another recent investigation by the Sunday Times into the rental sector showed a trend in landlords denying leases to renters with kids.

School closures aren’t the only fallout from these trends – as children’s needs reduce, so do services for them, and nothing shows this more starkly than the reduction in children’s playgrounds. The campaign group Playing Out has shown that spaces for children have been both removed in regeneration schemes and promised but not delivered in new housing schemes across London.

At the same time, at the other end of the age spectrum, older Londoners are facing significant challenges to downsizing, restricting the flow of housing stock between age groups and reinforcing ghettos defined by age. Despite the desire of many older Londoners to downsize within their local communities, there’s a critical shortage of suitable downsizer properties, according to a recent analysis by the Sunday Times. It reported that 3,245 retirement communities need to be built — containing 487,000 individual homes — to make up the shortfall, describing this shortfall as a “cause for alarm” and placing a premium on the most popular type of properties — bungalows, for example. “For some would-be downsizers there is no financial incentive to move.”, it concluded.

These trends show no sign of abating, and as the underlying drivers are multileveled and complex there is no easy fix. A very minimal step forward would be generating a consensus that these situations are undesirable, and it is in all of our interests to change them if we value multigenerational places.

It is something that has been recognised by the World Health Organisation which has established the 2020s as the decade of age friendly cities and communities.They’ve even created a toolkit for cities and communities to use in developing them.

This is a welcome show of support for places where the fundamentals in housing and planning are in alignment – but in London where housing is increasingly pricing young families out and restricting older people from downsizing, central government and city halls must approach interventions and corrections from core housing and planning policy.

Perhaps achieving multigenerational places requires an entire reframing of ageing and ageism. Some new thinking in the USA suggests there are multiple ways of understanding our experience amongst generations. “Thinking in terms of generational interdependence—rather than competition between generations—might offer a way through the debates surrounding old-age policies … Generational interdependence suggests that ‘we’re all in this together’, and that can be a powerful thought.”

We as Londoners must ask ourselves if we want to live in a city of increasingly young affluent childless in the city centre with older people clustered in outer rings. If the answer is no, then pressure for change starts here and now.

Clare Delmar

Listen to Locals

May 3, 2023


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