This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.
Imagine a woman who is married at 15, widowed at 60, then moves away from her rural home to care for her grandchildren in a city. Unable to read or write—like many older people who never had the opportunity to access education—she finds herself isolated from a new and unfamiliar community. “This isn’t a singular story,” says Katherine Kline, “this is the story of many older women, especially those that are being moved by choice or by force to migrate to cities.”
And to be an older person in a city, says Kline, the co-chair of the General Assembly of Partners (GAP) Older Persons group, is to be invisible: not just to a youth-obsessed culture, but to policymakers, governments and urban planners, as well. This is despite the fact that 58 percent of the world’s 900 million older people live in cities, a number that the UN projects will rise to two billion by 2050. “The biggest obstacle, I would say, that we must overcome is our lack of visibility,” she said at the opening of the Women’s Assembly at World Urban Forum 9 in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.
A 72-year-old “lifetime advocate” and former diplomat who switched her focus to issues affecting older persons eight years ago, Kline taking her message to the World Urban Forum with gusto, paying her own way from New York to Kuala Lumpur and speaking on numerous panels.
To illustrate her point, she has a go-to gripe: the United Nations relies on the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), which almost always fail to include people aged 50 and above. Described as “nationally representative” and undertaken in more than 90 developing countries, the data is used, among other purposes, as a baseline for the Sustainable Development Goals.
Although aging populations have long been seen mainly as a concern for industrialized nations, ignoring the rapid demographic shift in the Global South would be a big mistake, she says. “As people move to the cities, so are they becoming older. And many people imagine this is occurring only in the developed countries, but the truth is the fastest-growing population in the developed world and in the developing world is those over 60,” Kline told an audience while speaking on Next City’s World Stage on Wednesday.
Urban centers are almost never designed with older people in mind, presenting them with challenges ranging from the inaccessibility of public spaces such as parks—crucial in combating feelings of isolation—to increased health risks resulting from heavy air pollution, which has been linked to spikes in deaths of the elderly. “[We need] to make sure governments aren’t looking at the immediate present, dealing with their youth bulge, and forgetting that these young people in 30 years are going to be in a different age category,” Kline says.
She believes a good place to start is data collection, an area where civil society advocacy over the past 18 months, since the GAP Older Persons group was established, is beginning to pay dividends. According to Kline, the UN Statistical Commission is expected to approve a project in March to begin research into how to widen the demographic scope of the DHS.
Another win came in the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, which was adopted by 167 countries at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, in 2016. Initially, it contained just three specific references to aging or older persons. Kline and her civil society partners managed to increase that to 27. “Now it’s our job to say, what are we doing to implement those 27-plus opportunities to engage the conversation?”
In the face of ingrained ageism, says Kline, advocates for older persons will be pushing hard on their agenda throughout the World Urban Forum and beyond. “That’s the first step: we raise the issue. But, still, there’s a long way to go.”
Holly Robertson is a freelance journalist based in Cambodia who focuses on human rights, gender and the environment. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, Guardian, BBC, Columbia Journalism Review, VICE and Mashable, among others.