We are now living in an aging world. However, have our city prepared for this trend? Do we pay attention to the emotional need of seniors?
By Jingxuan Zhang, Harvard GSD
According to data released by the Shanghai Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau and Shanghai Statistics Bureau, one-third of Shanghai’s population were over 60 by the end of 2017. This trend also happens all over the world, the number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to more than double from 46 million today to over 98 million by 2060. We are now living in an aging world. However, have our city prepared for this trend? Do we pay attention to the emotional need of seniors?
In order to answer these questions, I have researched three typical cases which have existed in Shanghai for at least ten years. First, in Renmin Park, there are hundreds of people in 50s and 60s spontaneously get together to find a suitable partner for their children. Second, in Shanghai Ikea, many people over 50 have formed an informal group dating corner at the cafeteria twice a week for Ikea provide free coffee. Third, in any vacant space in the city, such as plazas, parking lot or sidewalk, you could see many elder people dance with loud music brought by themselves, which is called “plaza dancing” in China. A common feature of these gatherings is that they are all spontaneous and informal, and these elderly people tend to transform the original function of the places to meet their needs. However, according to Liu’s research and an article published by the Shanghai government, the success rate in the first two cases is even lower than 1%. Since it is almost impossible for these seniors to find a good partner for children or for themselves, why they keep going to these informal gatherings for many years?
According to research in China, the average score of loneliness in the elderly is increasing from 1995. From my point of view, what they are seeking for is more about an atmosphere of being in a group with common topics, rather than the outcome of these activities. There are two main existing problems in these phenomena. First, according to Liu’s research, the social interaction among these groups of people is under weak relationship network, and it is hard for them to build trust and friendship with each other. Many people in plaza dancing groups and Ikea group dating corner said that they never contacted people they met there, and they never talked about topics like family and emotion.
Second, outside these group of seniors, there is always some stigma attached to them from the society--they are labeled as vulgar, uncivilized freeloaders. Their spontaneous and informal gatherings always come with conflicts with other people who are affected. For example, Ikea accused them of "uncivilized behavior" and put a stop by imposing a strict "no food, no seating" rule to discourage them from occupying canteen seats. For plaza dancing groups, they often cause conflict with young people when want to dance in basketball courts, and they even attacked by steel balls from residents in the nearby neighborhood who cannot stand their loud music.
Then I try to explain the two problems from three angles in order to explore the possibility for improvement. First, from a psychological point of view, according to Socio-emotional Selectivity Theory put forward by .., the elderly’s desire to affiliate with unfamiliar people would decrease in order to minimize emotional risks. In the cases of the gatherings in Ikea and Renmin Park, most of the seniors there cannot get enough company and understanding from their family. Therefore, they have to seek a company from unfamiliar peers with similar interests.
Second, as a generation born in the 1950s, they have experienced the transformation from collectivism to individualism in Chinese society. When they were young, most of them lived in a neighborhood with their colleagues in state-owned factories, where you need to share bathrooms and kitchens. Following the change of socio-economic environment after the 1990s, many collective enterprises and factories were disintegrated or removed, so the collective living space gradually disappeared.
Third, more and more public spaces are now replaced by spaces of consumption. In Shanghai’s Planning Outline for the Layout of Commercial Outlets, commercial centers occupy large amounts of lands in the center city of Shanghai. What’s more, for the developers of most of the shopping malls in Shanghai, the potential consumers they want to attract are middle-class young people. For example, the developer of K11 shopping mall said “white-collar workers and fashionistas from 25 to 45 years old are the guests we want. Now they are our VIP.” For many cities in China, young people represent good tastes, latest fashion and strong consumption impulse. However, the large numbers of people over 60s are excluded in spaced of consumption, like there is a senior said “We feel like aliens - surrounded by youngsters. If there is another place in Shanghai where elderly people can gather, we are more than ready to pay twice as much and travel further.” From my point of view, most of the architects, urban planner and developers in Shanghai cater to the use and taste of people under 50 years old much more than try to create spaces that seniors want.
References:YAN Zhimin; LI Dan; ZHAO Yuhan; YU Lin; YANG Xun; ZHU Shuirong; WANG Ping. Increasing Loneliness in Old People: A Cross-temporal Meta-analysis. 2014Liu Chenhuan. Social interaction of middle-aged and elderly people under weak relationship network. 2013Laura L. Carstensen. Evidence for a Life-Span Theory of Socioemotional Selectivity. 1995Shanghai’s Planning Outline for the Layout of Commercial Outlets (2014-2020)
Call for Action
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Dear Shanghai Municipal People's Government,
By the end of 2017, one-third of Shanghai’s population is over 60 years old. However, their emotional and social needs are often neglected, and our city does not have enough and appropriate places for them to get together. As a student of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, I propose the local government to pay close attention to this issue.
Through three case studies in Shanghai -- the matchmaking corner in Renmin Park, the group dating corner in Ikea Shanghai and plaza dancing, I find that more and elder people feel lonely and look for a space of solidarity for themselves in the city. And the emergence of these spontaneous and informal gatherings and conflicts caused by them shows that our urban spaces cannot meet the needs of elder adults.
On the one hand, these spontaneous and informal gatherings always come with conflicts between these elderly and other people who are affected. There is always some stigma attached to these elderly from the society, and they are labeled as vulgar, uncivilized freeloaders. On the other hand, according to Liu Chenhuan’s research, the social interaction among these groups of people is under weak relationship network, and it is hard for them to build trust and friendship with each other
I propose that the society and media should pay more understanding and guidance to the elderly, rather than simply attach stigma on them.I propose that the government should encourage the establishment of more profit or non-profit organization to provide social interaction among the elderly and help them build trust and friendship.I propose that more public spaces for the elderly should be considered in urban planning.
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Dear developers and managers of the shopping malls in Shanghai,
When Shanghai is coming to an aging society, most of the shopping malls are excluding people over 60 in their potential consumers. It is assumed that young middle-class people represent the latest fashion and have strong consumption impulse, but the elderly can also be valuable to your shopping malls. With more time on their hands and changing attitude regarding consumption. In the future, they should be included in your plans.
I propose that more shopping malls should incorporate people over 60 as their potential users and introduce more types of spaces that attract this group of people.
I propose that public activities suitable for the elderly should be held for free regularly in shopping malls.
I propose that more public spaces should be considered in the design of shopping malls in order to blur the boundary between public spaces and spaces of consumption in the city and attract more elderly people to the shopping malls.
Jingxuan Zhang Harvard Graduate School of Design
Jingxuan Zhang is a Master in design study candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She was born in Shanghai, China, and studied historic preservation in Tongji University. Now her area of concentration is critical conservation.