Infrastructure & Environment

How Will Boomers Reshape U.S. Cities?

The wave of boomer retirees will transform the way cities look, from the way they grow and sprawl to minutiae such as curb heights and the fonts on street signs.
by | September 2012
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Explore the topic of aging in America through in-depth stories, data and interactive content at governing.com/generations.

Walk around Arlington County, Va., the compact, urbanized jurisdiction just outside Washington, D.C., and you may start to notice some interesting design details. The sidewalks are wide -- six feet in commercial areas and five in residential neighborhoods. Pedestrian “walk/don’t walk” signals have been replaced with newer versions that count down the seconds left before the light changes. And buses sit lower, eliminating the need for passengers to climb up and down steps to board and exit.

These are just a handful of the new elements that have been implemented in recent years as Arlington has pursued a plan to prepare for its aging baby boomer population. In 2006, the county assembled a task force to examine what it would need to do to accommodate older residents. The move was prescient, but to some residents it may even have seemed unnecessary. Arlington is a bastion of young, educated, urban professionals, many of them working for the federal government and associated industries. More than one-third of the county’s residents are between the ages of 25 and 39; nationwide, fewer than one in five Americans fall into that age range. But county leaders knew that change was on the horizon. By 2030, the county’s over-65 population is projected to double, and its over-85 group is set to almost triple. In the not-too-distant future, officials realized, their relatively small population of seniors would become vastly larger.

Some of the changes -- like the new crossing signals and the minimum sidewalk widths, which will better accommodate residents using walkers and wheelchairs -- are fairly small tweaks. Other changes are more significant. Arlington County has expanded a transit service that provides door-to-door transportation for the disabled. Parks and recreation officials are sponsoring bicycling groups for seniors to help introduce them to a driving alternative. And a new zoning ordinance allows some homeowners to build accessory dwelling units, often known as “granny flats,” where aging residents can live in proximity to relatives or friends.

County leaders say they’re expecting to see the population age not just as existing residents grow older, but also as young professionals move their parents to Arlington to better care for them. Terri Lynch, director of the Arlington County Agency on Aging, says that given the changing behavior of elderly people, the county has to take a different approach than communities may have in the past. Because retirees live longer and are more active than they previously have been, it’s crucial that the county address the needs of older residents, Lynch says. “It isn’t your grandmother’s aging.”

Across the country, urban planners and transit officials are realizing that the wave of boomer retirees will transform the way cities look, from the way they grow and sprawl to minutiae such as curb heights and the fonts on street signs. “We’re in a period of transition that’s pretty dramatic,” says David Dixon, who leads the planning and urban design practice at the Boston-based firm Goody Clancy. “You look at major metro areas, and sometimes a third or more of their growth for the next 30 years is folks over 65. That’s a hugely [significant] and rapid transition.”

Gone are the days when retiring meant packing up and moving to adults-only communities in Arizona or Florida, says Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president of AARP’s state and national group. Surveys by her organization indicate that 84 percent of baby boomers plan on staying in their current homes as they age, she says, some because they want to, and others because they can’t afford to move. Those empty nesters who do move may be more interested in relocating to smaller apartments in connected urban centers than to retirement golf-course communities.

The bottom line, planners say, is that city and county governments face a growing challenge: how to design a community for a population they haven’t had to cater to in the past. If they come up with the right answer, they can help aging residents lead fulfilling lives and remain engaged and active, even in their senior years. But if they fail, they risk alienating and isolating a rapidly growing cohort of taxpayers. “We’re trying to be predictive about where the populations are in a community that doesn’t necessarily have senior citizens now, but in a few years will have a tremendous population,” says Anna Ricklin, manager of the American Planning Association’s Planning and Community Health Research Center.

Many of the aspects of designing an age-friendly community -- walkable downtowns, cohesive transit networks, mixed-use urban villages -- are the same things smart growth advocates have been pushing for 20 years. “By making the space accessible for seniors, you’re making it more accessible for everyone else,” Ricklin says.

But there are other issues that are directly related to aging residents. A recent World Health Organization report on aging communities, for example, highlights the need for things like greater numbers of public benches, safer crosswalks and plenty of public toilets to accommodate older people.

Experts say communities will also need to consider how they make transit service available to boomers, since many will become increasingly dependent on buses and rail as they stop driving. Officials in Westchester County, N.Y., for example, have been conducting outreach campaigns to sign seniors up for fare cards and teach them to use the bus. “In all of the surveys that we do of seniors and the outreach to the senior community, we find that their No. 1 concern about getting older is transportation,” says Naomi Klein, director of planning at the county’s public works and transportation department. “They don’t want to lose their independence. There’s real concern about having to give up driving.”

In addition to teaching seniors how to use the bus system and read schedules, Westchester officials have also changed the design of their bus timetables to make them more readable for people who have trouble with small typefaces. And one bus route was altered to ensure it reached destinations that seniors were most interested in visiting, including pharmacies and the medical center.

Is Your City Age-Friendly? Find out here.

When it comes to buildings themselves, many advocates have touted the idea of universal design -- making buildings more accommodating to all, often in subtle ways -- and encouraging developers to embrace these principles. That means wider hallways and doorways, and the absence of thresholds to help prevent trips and falls. There’s also been a movement to encourage builders to introduce facets into their structures that cater to people who might not be disabled today but could be in the future. For example, residential bathrooms could have walls designed to accommodate the eventual installation of grab bars, since it would be easier and less expensive to do that during the construction phase then to have to replace drywall later on. Related to that is the concept of “visitability” -- the idea that even if you aren’t disabled yourself, your home should be able to accommodate guests who are.

Portland State University, for instance, has worked with the city of Portland to include language in the city’s planning guide that emphasizes the needs to address accessibility issues for the elderly and disabled. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and others have called for governments to consider age-friendly plans modeled on home weatherization programs that would modify buildings to accommodate older people with mobility issues. AARP, for its part, says it plans to work with homebuilders and developers to get them to voluntarily adopt these types of standards; the group believes such a strategy will be more effective than pursuing zoning and building code reforms across the country.

What’s clear is whether it’s through municipal building codes or voluntary, market-driven adjustments, the home design will need to change to accommodate the older population, says Alan DeLaTorre, project coordinator at Portland State University’s Institute on Aging. “For the last 50 to 100 years, we’ve been building Peter Pan housing. It assumes you’re not going to grow up and grow old.”

On a broader scale, the aging trend will also require a rethinking of the type of housing stock that’s offered. While single-family homes with multiple bedrooms are often the cornerstone of residential communities, they aren’t necessarily practical for an elderly retiree, says Dixon, the urban designer. “Large parts of this country have a housing stock that is increasingly out of sync with demand in the market today and really out of sync going forward.”

Beyond that, some communities are starting to focus on better incorporating hospitals, nursing homes and other elder facilities into the community. John Norquist, president of the smart growth organization Congress for the New Urbanism, has touted efforts in some California communities to try to more closely link hospitals to sidewalks and transit. He says similar efforts could be adopted at some retirement communities so that instead of being surrounded by a parking lot, which may promote a sense of isolation, retirees can have access to the surrounding neighborhoods.

Implementing those kinds of changes will be a challenge. Many seniors who are aging in place live in suburbs that haven’t embraced walkable design and may not have large enough populations to support the density that would make it possible. Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of the book Retrofitting Suburbia, suggests the key to designing cities for the elderly is creating brand-new town centers, in some cases built upon the sites of old shopping centers. She touts Mashpee Commons, an open-air mall in Cape Cod that was a typical shopping center in the 1960s but was redeveloped in the 1980s and today includes a nearby library, Boys & Girls Club and senior center. City and county leaders in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., renovated a former downtown Walmart into a community center. The city-owned facility leases space out to an adult day care and an organization that helps connect elderly people with resources like Medicare and transportation. It also has a community theater and space for after-school services run by the parks department. Planning experts say facilities like that can help foster a sense of community in the elderly.

Part of the solution could lie in reinterpreting federal law. Architect Scott Ball, author of the book Livable Communities for Aging Populations, advocates a reexamination of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The 1990 law uses buildings codes to ensure the disabled have access and maneuverability within individual structures. But it doesn’t address the larger issues of designing an accessible community. Ball and others say the ADA should consider things like zoning, and he argues that providing access to the disabled can be more of an urban planning issue than an architectural one.

In that sense, designing an age-friendly community is about much more than wheelchair ramps and countdown walk signals. It involves a comprehensive approach that focuses as much on the individual as technical standards. “There are few places that are getting any younger,” says LeaMond of the AARP. “We don’t want people, as they get older, to get more and more isolated from community activities and services they need.”

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