Planning for an Older Population

One area of planning that will almost inevitably grow for some time is planning for older people. The driving force is demography. People who in 2015 were aged between 65 and 85 were born between 1930 and 1950. That period encompasses the Great Depression and World War II and just the first few years of the baby boom. Births averaged about 2.8 million per year across this period. In 2030 people aged 65 to 85 will have been born in the period 1950 to 1970. That period encompasses almost the entirety of the baby boom and averages just under 4 million births per year. More older people, more votes cast by older people, and more purchasing power in the hands of older people will all mean more focus on planning for older people. In fact, the trend is well underway at the time of writing.

A limited number of older people now live in NORCs, an acronym for Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. This is largely an urban phenomenon. An example might be an apartment house that, over time, becomes populated predominantly by seniors. People simply stay on after their children have grown up. The effect may be intensified in those cities which have rent controls, such as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, because over the passage of time the difference between controlled rents and uncontrolled rents grows, and people become reluctant to give up controlled units. A number of municipalities recognize the NORC phenomenon and spend some public funds on providing services to residents of NORCs. That, generally, is more a matter of social work than planning, though some planning matters such as improving access to buildings, sidewalk improvements, curb cuts, shelters for a nearby bus-stop, and so on may come up.

A certain percentage of the older population is housed in retirement communities. Typically, one member of the household must be 55 or older and no permanent resident of the household may be under 18. Such communities are typically built in the outer regions of metropolitan areas or in non metropolitan areas, since that is where land is available in large blocks, and the distance from central areas is of lesser importance for a predominantly retired population. Planning such communities is and will continue to be a specialty for many planners, designers, and architects. However, a substantial majority of older people express a desire to remain in their communities for the rest of their lives. According to one survey, the figure was a surprisingly high 89 percent.14

The retirement condo in the sun has its appeal, but if moving to it means saying goodbye to people and places one knows and starting a new life far from children and grandchildren, a majority of older people seem not to want to do it; nor, for that matter, can all of them afford to do it.

The alternative is to make neighborhood, town centers, downtowns, and other areas better places for older people to live, making these places more genuinely multi-generational. One organization which has studied and pursued the question energetically is the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) discussed in Chapter 16. Its handbook on the subject lays out basic goals and principles.15 It defines the goals of planning for an older population that wants to remain in place as follows:

  • 1. Promote housing and transportation options
  • 2. Encourage healthy lifestyles
  • 3. Expand access to services.

To pursue these goals, they advocate seven principles:

  • 1. Connectivity. In the ideal world this means multiple paths and preferably more than one mode to provide safe and convenient movement within the area, and also to some destinations outside the area.
  • 2. Pedestrian access and transit. This may be regarded as a subset of the item above. Pedestrian access means sidewalks, traffic signals adjusted to the slower walking speeds of older people, raised medians so that a pedestrian crossing a wide two-way street can make the trip in two stages, and bulgeouts (a bulge in the sidewalk which reduces the street width at a pedestrian crossing point). In short, there is a certain preference for the pedestrian. For example, the bulgeout reduces a two-lane road to one lane at the crossing point and therefore can impede vehicular traffic. The term transit is used very generically. It could mean buses, light rail, or various forms of para-transit (see Chapter 12). In at least one case, namely North Hempstead, NY, it simply means setting up a call system by which residents can schedule cab rides with a part of the cost paid by the municipality.16
  • 3. Provision of neighborhood retail and services.
  • 4. Social interaction. This means a design that promotes encounters and provides places where people can socialize, perhaps community centers, green spaces, and so on.
  • 5. Diversity of dwelling types. The goal here is to make it possible for people to remain in the community as their housing needs, and perhaps also their financial resources, change.
  • 6. Healthy living. This means a design that encourages walking and other healthful physical activities in safety. It also means providing convenient access to medical services.
  • 7. Consideration of existing residents. This means moving toward a plan in a way that does not displace people who wish to remain in the area. It also means not putting people in a situation where their housing costs suddenly rise dramatically or where they are pushed out because housing is demolished to make way for new housing, even if the new housing is within their reach financially. It is a sensitive approach and very much in contrast to that of Urban Renewal described earlier in this chapter.

One might ask: how much of the above is really new? The answer is: not very much. One sees in it much of the New Urbanism discussed in Chapter 10. One hears echoes of the work of William Whyte, also discussed in Chapter 10, as well as the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) advocated by Peter Calthorpe and others. What is new, or at least what makes this worth discussing, is the comprehensive focus on a single goal. Note that the approach includes not only matters of physical planning but also of a variety of human services. For example, the healthy living principle involves convenient access to medical care. That may involve human services that are quite different from anything the land-use planner deals with directly.

Designing a community that is well adapted to the needs of a senior population may require more flexibility in land-use controls than many ordinances now provide. For example, flexibility about accessory structures and other accommodations for multi-generational (meaning more than one generation of adults) households is important. Land-use controls that permit a fine-grained mixing of uses will also be essential to permit a land-use pattern for a population that will not be heavily reliant on the automobile. At the detailed design level there are a multitude of fine points to be considered. On this matter a quick look at the ARC's handbook online is instructive, since it lists many matters that would not naturally occur to a younger person. These are adaptations for people whose walking speed may be slower, whose eyesight many not be as good as it was, for whom steps may be a problem, and so on. The meticulousness with design details that characterizes form-based zoning (see Chapter 9) has a role here, regardless of what type of ordinance is actually used.

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