Are the suburbs walkable enough for aging Boomers?

1.11.2013 | Are the suburbs changing fast enough to keep up with a rapidly aging population? Are they building in ways that are sustainable and walkable to attract both young adults and support those aging in place? According to December 2012 report by the Urban Land Institute, they’re not there yet, but things are beginning to change.

As Rachel MacCleery and coauthors note:

“Over the last two decades, driven in part by a desire to attract and retain a young talented workforce, suburban places have launched important initiatives aimed at meeting shifting market demands. Across the country, dozens, if not hundreds, of suburban places have worked to reimagine their future and to build or rebuild in more compact and sustainable ways.”

This is not to say the task ahead is easy. The authors of “Shifting Suburbs: Reinventing Infrastructure for Compact Development” stress that remaking the suburbs into more compact, walkable, sustainable communities that are conducive to aging in place and attracting young people remains a formidable challenge– a challenge that will take cross-jurisdictional coordination at a metro regional scale. As they write:

“Compact development in the suburbs often requires extensive cross-jurisdictional infrastructure planning and coordination, as well as the commitment of many different players, including sometimes-overlapping local government entities, state departments of transportation, developers, and others.”

The suburbs are now home to a greater proportion of people age 45 and older than are cities, as the baby boom generation ages in place. Aging brings its own challenges, from health declines to widowhood. As Bette Davis once said, “aging ain’t for sissies.” At home, simple things such as bending over to load the dishwasher are suddenly perilous. The housing industry has made significant advances in adapting houses themselves to “universal design,” with wider doorways, walk-in showers, grab bars and counters that accommodate wheelchairs.

However, larger, community-wide changes are slower to appear. These efforts include:

    • Suburban mall retrofits that transform sprawling parking lots and mall complexes into compact, mixed-use places that leverage their location near fixed-rail transit stations or bus transit corridors to build in higher density;
    • Suburban transit-oriented development;
    • Redeveloping suburban arterials or commercial corridors, to create denser, smarter development with access to transit service, especially bus transit; and
    • Large-scale suburban transformation.

These larger changes require rethinking infrastructure to include transit investments, structured parking, intricate street grids, sidewalks, streetlighting, and water, sewer, and other utility upgrades.

The typical suburb is a mix of car-centric travel, strip malls, and residential areas removed from shopping. As the authors write, the challenges of redeveloping suburbs for higher-density, more connected living are daunting at times:

“For these places, it can be hard to imagine an alternate future, to say nothing of actually building one. Because of their important transportation role, and because of the development challenges they pose, they are often overlooked or disregarded as priorities for redevelopment.

And even when a vision is in place, coordination across multiple jurisdictions, land assembly, prioritization of development nodes and sites (often necessary because of the sheer volume of land involved), and infrastructure investment needs all pose challenges—challenges that public and private stakeholders are still developing tools to effectively address.”

The report offers six case studies, from redoing a central four-lane artery into a more pedestrian friendly route with regular bus service, to a massive mall converted into a downtown community, Belmar, in Lakewood, a Denver suburb.

Built on the former Villa Italia mall, the 103-acre Denver site has been transformed into 3.3 million square feet of new development on 22 urban-scale blocks. Belmar now contains 880,000 square feet of retail space, 250,000 square feet of office space, 5,000 public parking spaces, 800 residential units (a mix of owner-occupied and rental housing), and two education institutions, as well as public plazas, art, and green space. The site is also home to one of the country’s largest solar panel systems, with 8,000 solar panels that generate 20 percent of the site’s energy needs.

Belmar provides several aspects that make aging in place easier. The community is walkable: grocery stores and other essentials are accessible from home without having to cross five or six lanes of traffic. Transit is available. And the homes are a mix of townhomes, single-family homes, and rental units for the different needs of families at different stages of life. The vibrancy of the farmer’s markets and shopping are draws for all ages, which decreases social isolation for the elderly.

The benefits go both ways. Seniors can be integral to revitalizing downtowns. If the hair dresser, movie theater, and shops are close and accessible, older individuals will use them more and can help downtown businesses thrive.

All of the examples show what can be done when leaders come together and plan smartly for the future. The examples are also not pollyanish about the difficulties ahead. However, given that the number of Americans over age 65+ is expected to increase from 13% of the population to 20%–or about 30 million more elderly–we’d better start planning now.

More: “Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America,” edited by Henry Cisneros, Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain, and Jane Hickie is an excellent compendium on the many facets of designing homes, communities, and regions for successful aging in place.



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