What Makes a City a Good Place to Get Old?

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.
population by road type
Half the people in New Jersey seem to need a car. (Photo: Places to Age)

He also suggests that suburbs might be retrofitted to be more amenable to older people.

Endowing a low-density, single-use, automobile-centric municipality with a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly town center will not happen overnight, but plenty of examples from around New Jersey and the rest of the country can point toward how a municipality can become incrementally more walkable and center–based. For example, infill housing development can be built on surface parking lots, or aging commercial strip-malls can be transformed into mixed-use centers that front directly on the street and create a pleasant pedestrian experience.

A companion document, Creating Places to Age: Municipal Best Practices, lays out best practices more concretely. It suggests a wide range of policy changes for housing:

  • Alternatives to detached single-family housing including multifamily housing, condos, duplexes and apartments.
  • Reduced building setbacks to increase density and reduce walking distances and isolation.
  • Smaller lot sizes to reduce walking and create "the critical mass of customers required to support viable commercial centers and other services for older residents."
  • Affordable housing mixed in with conventional market housing.
  • Universal design, which we have also called for on MNN.
  • Accessory apartments or granny flats and in-law suites. This might now include backyard tiny homes.

There are also bigger plans at the community level including:

  • Traditional "Main Street" development, where you get a mix of uses in smaller storefronts and usually, apartments above.
  • Alternatives to conventional land subdivision that promote compact, walkable development and varying lot sizes.
three plans of towns
Three municipalities with very different plans. (Photo: Places To Age)

As we've said repeatedly here on MNN, transportation can't be separated from urban design. There's no talk about self-driving cars saving us because the document was written in 2014 before they became the latest craze, and because transportation is so much easier when cities are designed this way to begin with.

  • Interconnected streets are a bit counterintuitive because cul-de-sac were designed to slow traffic down, but traditional suburban planning pushes drivers to arterial roads. "Generally speaking, more connections offer more options to both vehicles and pedestrians than street patterns that terminate in cul-de-sacs or empty into a single arterial road. Older drivers may feel safer driving on "quieter" roads rather than being forced to enter a main thoroughfare or interstate, and gridded streets provide pedestrians with multiple ways to reach a destination."
  • Complete streets include provision for everyone, not just drivers. Sidewalks, which should be everywhere but are also designed properly. "Sidewalks that fail to connect centers of pedestrian activity, that 'feel' unsafe, that fail to meet accessibility guidelines or that lack amenities such as benches, public restrooms or shade will not be used."
  • Safe and accessible parking lots because it's surprising how dangerous lots actually are. They should have shade, safe walkways and designated pedestrian routes.
  • Mass transit to permit older residents to travel without a car to other walkable destinations. It all works together symbiotically: "Compact future development or redevelopment can help to create a viable market for public transportation. Similarly, locating new development in close proximity to existing public transportation gives residents the option to forgo more easily the use of an automobile."

In these two documents, New Jersey planners have created a pretty comprehensive look at what we can do to make our cities and suburbs better and safer for an aging population. And designing "places to age" sounds a lot better than my question of "How do I get out of this place?" It can be summed up in this paragraph:

In places already blessed with "good bones" – i.e., development patterns that already facilitate more efficient trip-making – solutions should focus on diversifying the housing stock, making sure such towns are well supplied with the types of housing that people are likely to want as they age, and at prices affordable to retirees. In lower-density, car-dependent places, officials and developers should look for retrofitting opportunities, to create new pedestrian-friendly downtowns in places that never had them. In any case, doing nothing is not an option. The graying of the populace is a statewide – indeed, nationwide – phenomenon. We need to start preparing good places for people to age.

It's a prescription that many cities could follow, if only the NIMBYs who fight any kind of change would realize that in not many years, this is exactly what they'll be wishing they had around them.