What makes a city a good place to get old?

What makes a city a good place to get old?

We really can build better communities for an aging population.

Photo: Patterson, a town with good bones. (Photo: Digital Commonwealth)

After reading The issue for boomers won’t be aging in place, planner Tim Evans sent me a note about a report he had written that looked at the issue from the other side: How do we design places to age? He was working in New Jersey, where they anticipated this would become a big issue. He found that there was a “spatial mismatch.”

New Jersey already has hundreds of thousands of older residents who are at risk of being isolated in places that do not lend themselves to getting around by any means other than driving. And this number is likely to get bigger as the ranks of older New Jerseyans continue to swell.

Aging is a land-use issue.

This subhead really says it all; he is saying what I said in bold: This isn’t a transportation problem, it’s an urban design problem. But he comes up with some really good suggestions that can be implemented. The problem was stated by author Jeff Speck a few years ago:

With the leading edge of the boomers now approaching sixty- five years [now 72] old, the group is finding that their suburban houses are too big. Their child-rearing days are ending, and all those empty rooms have to be heated, cooled, and cleaned, and the unused backyard maintained. Suburban houses can be socially isolating, especially as aging eyes and slower reflexes make driving everywhere less comfortable. Freedom for many in this generation means living in walkable, accessible communities with convenient transit linkages and good public services like libraries, cultural activities, and health care.

The answer is to plan with “smart growth” features that make it easier for everyone to get around.

  • Compactness/density: Putting destinations closer together facilitates walking and biking, makes public transit more viable, and makes car trips shorter for those trips that are still taken by car.
  • Mix of uses: Putting different types of destinations (residential, employment, shopping) near each other means multiple purposes can be accomplished in a single trip, and that more types of trips can be taken by non-motorized means or by a shorter drive.
  • Street network connectivity: A street network that’s more grid-like and less branching, with small blocks, mostly through-streets, and fewer looping roads and dead-ends, creates multiple route options and ensures that short as-the-crow-flies distances translate into short trips.
  • Access to public transportation

A lot of New Jersey and much of the United States is already built this way, in older towns that were laid out before the postwar suburban boom. Evans says we should be concentrating our efforts on fixing what we have. “One strategy is to examine the places whose built forms already lend themselves to helping older residents get around easily, and assess their capacity to absorb more such people.” But they may not have the right mix of housing types and sizes.

A concerted effort would need to be made on the part of these municipalities to make their housing supplies more aging-friendly, via such efforts as ensuring that their zoning allows for apartment buildings, townhouses, duplexes, accessory apartments, and other housing types that appeal particularly to older residents. They could also allow and encourage the subdivision of existing buildings into multi-unit housing, whether through the addition of a “granny flat” to an existing home, the partition of a large single-family house into multiple units, or the conversion of a non-residential building into residential use.