Facing an Age Old Challenge

America’s aging population requires new approaches to urban development.

By Sarah Lewis

Over the next generation, the United States will face an unprecedented challenge. By 2030, it is expected that more than 70 million Americans will be over the age of 65. The vast majority of those seniors won’t be able to afford to live in Continuing Care Retirement Communities, and in fact, many won’t want to.

Seniors today are healthier and more active than ever before, and there’s no reason to expect that trend to change. Many expect to “age-in-place,” spending their golden years in their own homes, living close to friends and loved ones. In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by AARP, 92 percent of older Americans want to live out their lives in their current homes.

Unfortunately, in most cases that isn’t possible. Many homes just aren’t able to safely or effectively meet the needs of older residents, and aren’t adaptable for the changing mobility needs that come with aging. But that doesn’t mean that seniors with fixed incomes have to move to expensive assisted living or nursing homes. It just means that developers need to rethink their approaches to senior living.

It may be surprising to hear that the answer doesn’t lie solely with building design. Sure, there are things that architects can do to make homes more accessible, but we need to think bigger. Developers and planners need to envision and create entire communities with an eye to accessibility and easy access to services for all. We also need to be adapting existing communities for lifelong livability too.

A true community should be compact, connected, and complete in its physical design and support systems. Creating more walkable communities with easy access to healthcare services, shopping, and entertainment can benefit all residents, not just seniors. It also makes those communities more attractive to prospective residents. That’s why mixed-use development combining residential development and services in close proximity is going to continue to be the most important trend of the next generation.

Equally important is diversity. I’m not proposing the development of community-wide old folk’s homes. In fact, we need to be doing just the opposite. To be truly vibrant, any community has to offer a variety of experiences: people of different ages, backgrounds, interests, and economic means. As we develop new mixed-use neighborhoods and infill, or revitalize older ones, we must provide the full range of living opportunities and experiences.

While diversity provides a better quality of life for residents, it can also provide greater affordability. For instance, if residential developments offer a range of options including more expensive high-end residences and more moderately priced options for middle income residents, then those more expensive units can help subsidize the cost of providing affordable homes to seniors, teachers, firemen, etc. In this case, diversity doesn’t just provide a better living experience, but also provides a better business model for developers.

Of course, the development of more diverse, mixed-use communities isn’t solely the responsibility of developers. State and local governments need to play their part by updating land-use regulations and housing policy. Revised zoning, building codes, and urban design standards can improve the physical design of communities to better meet the housing and mobility needs of older adults and others who are more likely to have low or fixed incomes.

Likewise, government must take the lead in developing convenient transportation. Older adults are more likely to need access to affordable, dependable, and user-friendly transportation to and from the services on which they rely. Even though in a mixed-use community the need for transit is minimized, there will always be needs to access beyond each community — such as hospitals. Policies that encourage adequate, safe, and accessible transportation infrastructure and services help people of all ages stay active and engaged in their communities.

2030 may seem far away, but in terms of urban planning it is just around the corner. Developers and government officials need to rethink urban planning if they are going to meet the needs of all of us as we get older.

Sarah Lewis works for Fuss & O’Neill and is a nationally known expert on urban planning. She may be contacted at salewis@fando.com.