WHO age friendly cities: does it work?

The World Health Organization’s guide to age-friendly cities and active ageing set the trend for policy in 2002. The publication, Global Age-Friendly Cities: A Guide, supports the age-friendly framework. This inspired the development of the Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. So how successful has this age-friendly movement been?

Front cover of the WHO guide for age friendly cities.

The longevity revolution is happening now. So it is a good time to review the success or otherwise of the age-friendly movement and the WHO framework for age-friendly cities.

The WHO Guide was initially designed to be a bottom-up participatory process. The flexibility of the process enabled individual cities and communities to work on local issues. However, it hasn’t quite worked that way. As with all participative processes, it comes down to whose voices are being heard at the discussion table. And it depends on whether the city or community is urban or rural and on the resources available.

Edgar Liu has checked out Australian policies across the three tiers of government. He wanted to find out if the WHO guide and framework inspired policy making. And if it did, to what extent. In a nutshell, these policies did not fully reflect socioeconomic and cultural diversity. Also, the policy focus remains on care and support services, which conflicts with the recommendations for connecting with multiple policy areas.

The title of the paper is, The World Health Organization’s impact on age-friendly policymaking: A case study on Australia.

WHO age friendly logo of 8 petals showing the 8 domains of life.
The WHO Age-Friendly Cities Framework


This paper reflects on whether and how the World Health Organization (WHO) inspires age-friendly policymaking across different levels of government. This is done via a case study in which we analyse the policies of Australia’s three-tiered federated government system against the WHO’s eight core age-friendly cities domains.

Findings suggest that membership of the Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities did not appear to overtly inspire the development of age-friendly policies across Australian governments.

Content analysis shows there is an overwhelming policy focus on care and support services, with little attention to cultural diversity. This reflects an outdated portrayal of debilitation in later life and a lack of recognition of how diverse circumstances impact the ageing process and corresponding support needs.

Our findings also reveal the challenges of a three-tiered federated system, where varying financial and authoritative capacities have influenced how different governments acknowledge and respond to population ageing.

Notably, local governments—the main level of implementation targeted by the WHO—are invariably constrained in developing their own age-friendly policies and may opt to adopt those of higher levels of government instead. These challenges will likely impact other resource-limited governments in responding to the needs of their emerging ageing populations.

You can read more in a related post Manchester and Brussels: A place to grow old.

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