The Right to an Age-Friendly City: Redistribution, Recognition and Senior Citizen Rights in Urban Spaces. McGill-Queens University Press, 2020, 209 pp.

By Meghan Joy

Review by Sheila Novek, Brandon University

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Launched by the World Health Organization, the Age-Friendly Cities (AFC) program has been adopted around the world as a framework for developing policies, services and spaces that support active ageing and enable older adults to live well.  In her book, The Right to an Age-Friendly City: Redistribution, Recognition and Senior Citizen Rights in Urban Spaces, Meghan Joy takes a detailed and critical look at the optimistic claims perpetuated by researchers, governments, and institutions that the program can address the challenges of population aging and empower older citizens to shape local policy. Through an in-depth case-study of the AFC political process in the city of Toronto, the book offers a window into the practice of AFC policy, the actors and institutions involved, and the complexities and constraints of the AFC framework.

Drawing on extensive empirical research and political analysis, Joy argues that the AFC framework constitutes a contradictory placed-based policy. On one hand, the policy program devolves responsibility to local governments and non-profits in a context of resource scarcity and growing demand for services; on the other hand, the focus on the local level creates space for older adults and advocacy groups to engage in the policy process and draw attention to issues that matter to them. Ultimately, Joy concludes that multi-level government investment and coordination is required to realize the potential of the AFC program.

Joy’s analysis draws on the “right to the city approach” to interrogate what she determines are three central claims of the AFC movement: that it will improve local environments, promote a positive aging identity and empower local policy actors. Through textual analysis and interviews with a broad range of policy actors, including non-profits and a seniors advisory committee, Joy problematizes these claims and paints a much more complex picture of AFC policy in practice. In her chapter on aging identity, Joy finds that far from tackling ageism, the AFC program implicitly privileges healthy, productive, and active aging, while stigmatizing aging associated with dependency and need. This dichotomy promotes policy development and advocacy focused on maintaining productive citizens, and devalues investment in long-term care and state-funded social supports. Considering the ongoing crisis in Canada’s long-term care homes in the wake of COVID-19, Joy’s analysis provides an important perspective on the longstanding political neglect of Canada’s long-term care sector.

Joy’s work bridges the disciplinary divide between gerontology and public policy, offering a contextualized and politically informed account of the age-friendly policy program in practice. Given the focus on the city of Toronto, however, questions remain about how the AFC program has been implemented in other parts of the country, and whether it has achieved greater success in other contexts.

This book will be of interest to aging researchers who are looking for a more nuanced and conceptual understanding of aging policy, and for policy and urban studies scholars exploring the complexities of place-based public policy. This book is also an important addition to scholarship on the local adoption of public health initiatives, including the increasingly popular dementia-friendly community movement.

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