Grey brigade can breathe new life into urban centres
THE ageing populations of Ireland and the UK may well come to the rescue of hard pressed urban and seaside town centres.
Instead of the over 65's becoming a drain on society or a 'time bomb', as one newspaper claimed earlier this year, they may well contribute towards addressing the serious challenges faced by urban centres as traditional retailers come under pressure from the web and out of town shopping centres.
In a recent report, the Building Futures think-tank associated with the Royal Institute of British Architects, outlines how 'active third-agers' can make a huge impact re-invigorating towns and cities.
The number of over 65s in most developed countries is expected to grow dramatically over the next 30 years. In Ireland it is expected to double from 532,000 in 2011 to as much as 1.4 million in 2046.
The number of these in the more active 65 to 80 age group is expected to increase from about 400,000 to almost 1 million according to Ireland's Central Statistics Office (CSO).
The CSO also expects the 50 to 65 age group to account for an increasing portion of the workforce – up from less than a quarter at present up to as much as one-third of the workforce and many over 65's may seek part-time work.
According to the Building Futures report, entitled "Silver Linings", the over 65s could stimulate a radical revival of beleaguered high streets as these urban areas could become a fusion of public amenity, private enterprise and inter-generational exchange, "all activated by third agers utilising their skills, time and energy to improve their community for themselves and their families."
It also points out that the older consumer market in the UK is forecast to grow by 81pc from 2005 to 2030.
As people with Irish connections account for a significant portion of these, there appears to be potential for Failte Ireland to attract some of this spending to this country.
During the early part of the boom a few Irish builders developed gated communities around nursing homes to cater for the over 55's but they had very limited success.
Now, Building Futures envisages the private sector capitalising on the significant potential of a skilled and available older workforce – one with inadequate pension provision – and developing whole towns, based on a new kind of local economy.
"Pop-up universities could be set up using the wealth of knowledge and skill offered by a generation who enjoyed a boom of cheaper accessible higher education. The city could become a living university. You could drop in at your local pub or community centre for your one to one, lecture (or pint of locally brewed ale) with your tutor," it adds.
The report points out that as many as 80pc of those currently aged 65-74 in England, and possibly in Ireland, fail to undertake the recommended level of exercise and consequently an active third age is not guaranteed for everyone.
To address this issue it envisages the establishment of networks of "health hubs", promoting exercise in public spaces and encouraging active ageing and wellbeing.
It also expects that the growth of this age group could prove the catalyst to convince Local authorities to redesign urban high streets away from their current retail focus to become destinations to host local services and support recreation.
With the increasing cost of child care, it sees grandparents playing a bigger role in child rearing and accompanying their grandchildren to playgrounds which are located beside a town centre crèche, nursery or infant school.
"This daily presence of old and young would provide the impetus to rethink the urban fabric and high streets would accommodate a diversity of uses that support a rich, active social and civic life.
This, in turn, would attract new families to consolidate the local community and urban centres would be reborn as places to meet and dwell, not just for functional trips," it adds.
The report envisages different streets adopting different approaches, some providing pleasure gardens or covered arcades for meandering and repose, others allotments where food is grown for home-use, sold locally as a living market, or cooked in adjacent cafés and restaurants.
Local services from doctors to advice bureaus could be relocated next to recreation centres, health and fitness clubs or sports facilities. Individual shop units that were once monofunctional could become hybrids of use as for instance chemists could offer its facilities and classes which promote healthy lifestyles.
Libraries could facilitate networks of "pop-up" university courses, mixing life-long learning with childcare or providing small business incubator spaces for new third-age entrepreneurs. Pubs could offer locations for inter-generational knowledge exchange and skill sharing, as the boundaries between generations begin to blur.
This cluster of expertise with both the time and technology to innovate, could lead to new enterprise and local business taking root locally, from small scale manufacture and 3D printing workshops to specialist consultancy.
The report also expects more older people to move to coastal towns and this may be accelerated by employers locating in these towns to avail of the articulate, responsible and reliable skills in these workforces.
Indeed such a trend may deliver a double benefit for the Irish tourist industry. Not alone could it attract more UK-based over 65 tourists and residents to our seaside towns but it could also harness the communications skills and local knowledge Irish over 65s.
Currently tourism relies on immigrants to deliver a cost-efficient service. But this undermines one of the traditional strengths of the Irish product – the friendly Irish experience. By attracting more of them to our coastal and tourist towns, the Irish OAPs could enjoy these town's entertainment facilities while also supplementing their income working as part-time receptionists in hotels or travel guides.
Instead of a spiral of decline and depravation, a new cycle of sustainable lifestyle would benefit local economies and other generations.