Boomer Alert: How Cities Must Adapt to an Aging Population, and Vice Versa

CC BY 2.0. You can only do this for so long. (Photo: Mick Tinbergen via Wikipedia)

A review of posts about aging baby boomers on the Mother Nature Network.

Years ago the demographer David Foot wrote "Boom, Bust and Echo," in which he claimed that "demographics explains two-thirds of everything — whether the subject is business planning, marketing, human resources, career planning, corporate organization, the stock market, housing, education, health, recreation, leisure, and social and global trends." One of the lessons in that book was to follow the baby boomers, the oldest of whom are now 72 and the youngest 58.

That's mostly a pretty healthy and fit group that many make the mistake of conflating with seniors, often the boomers' parents, who are in the seniors' homes these days. But there are 70 to 75 million of these baby boomers, and when they are not so fit, in ten or fifteen years, this is going to have a profound effect on our cities and more likely the suburbs, where 75 percent of them live. I have been mulling about these urban design issues over on our sister site The Mother Nature Network; here is a roundup of what I think are the most interesting stories, starting with one that got a lot of responses and interest.

The issue for boomers won't be 'aging in place'

The real question will be, 'How do I get out of this place?'

What goes wrong first when you get old
What goes wrong first when you get old. JCHS

We do not have a home design problem, we have an urban design problem.

Baby boomers are looking around their houses and thinking "What can I do so that I can age in place?" and investing in renovations, when all the data show that one of the first things go to is the ability to drive — long before the ability to walk. Instead, they should be asking "What can I do to get out of this place? How will I get to the doctor or the grocery?" Every single one of them has to look in the mirror right now and ask themselves, "What do I do when I can't drive?"

Ultimately, we have to face the fact that this is an urban design problem, that our suburbs don't work for an aging population. Ultimately, we have to build communities for people, not cars, as we have in the past. Most critically, we have to face the inevitability of demographics. Today it's a problem, but in 10 or 15 years, it's a disaster.

How older Americans got stuck in the suburbs

It's all just collateral damage from the Cold War.

credit: Wisconsin Historical society

Wisconsin Historical society/Public Domain

After I wrote the previous article on aging in place, Jason Segedy, director of planning and urban development for Akron, Ohio, had a few bones to pick. He said we are too quick to blame urban planners for giving people what they want:

I do want to apologize to Jason Segedy, and agree that we mostly got our sprawling suburbia in spite of modern urban planners like him, not because of them. He also notes that people love their single-family houses and actively resist change, and he is right in saying that it's not about being liberal or conservative; some of the biggest battles about density and zoning are happening in Berkeley and Seattle. But then he writes, "It is not the urban planners, or some cabal of faceless bureaucrats who are preventing this from happening. It is all of us."

But it is important to note that it was a cabal of faceless bureaucrats that got us here. "It's an object lesson in one of the most successful military-industrial interventions of all time, and the consequences were exactly what was intended. The problem for older people today is that they are collateral damage."

What makes a city a good place to get old?

We really can build better communities for an aging population.

Patterson, a town with good bones

Patterson, a town with good bones/Public Domain

Another urban planner, Tim Evans, noted that many recognize this issue of what he calls the "spatial mismatch", and what needs to be done to fix it so that people can in fact age in place. Jeff Speck nailed this problem 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.

Evans talks about the need for density, a mix of uses, street network connectivity and really good public transportation.

Why aging boomers need walkable cities more than convenient parking

Walking in Vienna

Lloyd Alter/ walking in Vienna/CC BY 2.0

The Guardian also picked up on the aging in place story. I reiterate:

We have a moving target with the 75 million aging baby boomers, the vast majority of whom live in the suburbs and the oldest of whom have just turned 70. Most are still driving, and when you ask those suburban drivers what they want now, it's more lanes and more parking and get rid of those damn bikes.

But in 10 or 15 years, it will be a different story, and all those slow-walking aging boomers will want those bump-outs, the slower traffic, the safer intersections that a real Vision Zero delivers. Instead of using seniors as a political football, we should be keeping our eye on the longer game.

Older pedestrians are dying on our roads

'Shared responsibility' is code for it's always the pedestrian's fault — but that doesn't work when you're talking about aging boomers.

crossing the street
© Funny, they don't look like they're drinking or Snapchatting — but they must be doing something wrong. DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

Driving a car is so difficult these days; it seems that whenever you get behind the wheel, someone leaps in front of you. That’s why so many safety campaigns these days are pushing the idea of "shared responsibility." It is a way of telling pedestrians that they shouldn’t look at their phones or listen to music while crossing the street, even as drivers blow through red lights because they're distracted by giant displays in their sealed boxes with big sound systems. But if they do get hit by that car and are "Walking While Distracted," the pedestrian shares responsibility for what happened.

But I take issue with this concept; old people aren't looking at their phones or texting, they are just "Walking While Old." Others are noticing the problem:

Age and vehicle type are two important factors affecting the injury risks in vehicle-to-pedestrian crashes. Interestingly, there are currently two independent trends in the world, especially in developed countries, with one being the aging of the population and the other the increasing proportion of SUVs. Unfortunately, both of these trends tend to increase the pedestrian-injury risk. Consequently, addressing the hazards posed by SUVs to older pedestrians is an important traffic-safety challenge.

Aging boomers: Forget the car, get on a bike

There are alternatives to driving that can work just about anywhere.

Senior in malmo
A senior cyclist in Malmo, Sweden. Lloyd Alter

In which I make the case that we have to stop promoting cars, and using aging boomers as an excuse.

A lot of people are hoping that self-driving cars will save us. Others continuously fight any attempt to limit the freedom of people to drive anywhere anytime. Mayor Bill deBlasio in New York recently objected to congestion charges because "old people have to drive to their doctors." Whenever I write on TreeHugger about limiting cars in cities, I'm told that disabled people can’t take transit and we can’t have bike lanes because they have to be able to park in front of stores and doctors' offices.

But I'm not alone in thinking there are alternatives that will let many (not all) age well and live longer because they don't drive. In Cambridge, U.K., huge numbers of older and disabled people ride bikes — an incredible 26 percent of the population with disabilities. Many people who have trouble walking say cycling is easier; many have tricycles or recumbent bikes that are easier to ride.

Want an age-friendly place to live? Move to the big city

Older people love farmers markets like Union Square in New York. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)
Older people love farmers markets like Union Square in New York. Lloyd Alter

It seems that boomers are no different from kids these days; what older people want, according to the study, is not that different from what young people are attracted to:

... good walkability, transit, and mobility; affordable, accessible housing; employment and volunteer opportunities at every age; well-coordinated health and social services; and more inclusion and intergenerational connection. You’ve probably noticed that this could just as easily define a Millennial’s wish list for the perfect place to live.

Why every house should be designed for multigenerational living

Single? Duplex? Triplex? Yes. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)
Single? Duplex? Triplex? Yes. Lloyd Alter

Where I live in Toronto, Canada, Portuguese and Italian immigrants built an absolutely standard plan in the '50s and '60s that could work as a single family, duplex or triplex house. There are thousands of them all over the city. Now, 50 years later, they are almost all multifamily, often intergenerational. I am also living in a house that I was able to duplex relatively easily.

Everyone should have this option. Developers and architects should plan homes so they can be easily divided as a matter of course. If houses have basements, they should have the ground floor raised enough so there can be decent windows for basement apartments. Even apartments can be designed to be flexible and adaptable, so that it's easy to rent out rooms.

It’s not rocket science; it’s just good planning.

Starbucks shouldn't be America's bathroom

Public toilets are a government responsibility.

Protest at Starbucks in Philadelphia. (Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images)
© Protest at Starbucks in Philadelphia. Mark Makela/Getty Images

Earlier this year there was a protest in Philadelphia, when two African-American men were arrested after asking to use the bathroom. The Chairman of Starbucks responsed by saying "We don’t want to become a public bathroom, but we’re going to make the right decision a hundred percent of the time and give people the key." I believe that this is wrong.

The situation is only going to get worse as the population ages (baby boomer men have to pee a lot), but there are also people with irritable bowel syndrome, pregnant women and others who simply need a bathroom more often or at less convenient moments. Authorities say providing public washrooms can't be done because it would cost "hundreds of millions" but never have a problem spending billions on the building of highways for the convenience of drivers who can drive from home to the mall where there are lots of washrooms. The comfort of people who walk, people who are old, people who are poor or sick — that doesn't matter.

Hostile design doesn't work for any age group

This isn't rocket science. People just need a place to sit.

My, that looks comfortable. (Photo: Factory Furniture /Wikipedia)
My, that looks comfortable. Factory Furniture /Wikipedia

William H. Whyte wrote in "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces":

Ideally, sitting should be physically comfortable — benches with backrests, well-contoured chairs. It's more important, however, that it be socially comfortable. This means choice: sitting up front, in back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups, off alone.

Instead, we get Hostile architecture, defined by Cara Chellew as "a type of persuasive design used to guide behavior in urban space by designing out specified uses of street furniture or the built environment as a form of crime prevention or protection of property." This is bad for everyone, but particularly for older people.

We have noted that 30 minutes of doing just about anything will extend your life, and that exercise keeps your brain young. If we want our aging population to get out there and do it, we need good safe walking infrastructure, decent public toilets and comfortable places to sit. These hostile designs just get in the way.

Universal design is for everyone, everywhere

It doesn't work for anyone unless it works for everyone.

The Flexity streetcar has a very low floor, making it easy for all to enter and exit. (Photo: City of Toronto)
The Flexity streetcar has a very low floor, making it easy for all to enter and exit. City of Toronto

There are 75 million baby boomers in America, and only a small proportion of them are going to need full wheelchair accessibility. This is why I rant about the giant bungalows in retirement communities with big garages for the wheelchair van. They look at one aspect, a vague nod to accessibility, and ignore the things that would make life better for everyone — the seven principles of universal design.

Baby boomers aren't buying senior housing

Baby boomers aren't ready for retirement homes — yet.

By 2035, America will have a lot of old baby boomers. (Photo: U.S. Census Bureau)
By 2035, America will have a lot of old baby boomers. U.S. Census Bureau

I know I sound like a broken record here (remember those?), but as I wrote in It won't be pretty when the boomers lose their cars or The issues for boomers won't be 'aging in place', in 10 or 15 years, the problems we face in transportation and urban design are going to be significant, and we should all be planning for it now.

Yet in all the discussions about infrastructure, what are the politicians planning to spend money on? According to CNBC:

Infrastructure could be one of a few areas of partnership between Democrats and Republicans, with members of both parties calling for improvements to the country's aging bridges, roads and airports. Ever since Trump announced his bid for the White House, he has lambasted what he's categorized as "horrible infrastructure problems" throughout the United States.

They might want to look at that demographic bulge and start planning for what 70 million 85-year-olds need, and it won't be highways — it will be safe sidewalks, better transit and reconfiguring our cities so that older people will be close to doctors and shopping and things they need without having to drive there. They might want to think about rebuilding suburbia instead of airports.

As planner Tim Evans pointed out, we don't need aging in place, we need places to age.