Retrofitting cities for aging Boomers

The view from Madison: what works to make cities better for older citizens is good urbanism for all. Here are some steps to take.

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The Seattle Central Library, as depicted on Slate. (Witold Rybczynski)

The view from Madison: what works to make cities better for older citizens is good urbanism for all. Here are some steps to take.

For years, the mantra for cities has been that we need to compete for young talent. We’re just starting to understand another imperative: the need to compete for experience and to accommodate the aging. A recent interesting Associated Press story describes how progressive cities like New York and Portland are starting to think about how well they work for the mass of aging Baby Boomers who will inhabit them.

There are 77 million of us BB’s born between 1946 and 1964. As we moved through life we changed everything. When we were young adults we changed social mores, higher education, and politics. When we started families we changed the way families function. Now that we’re graying we’ll change the way we think about aging.

I know how annoying this is to our parents and our kids. Boomers can be obnoxious with our sense of self-importance. Nonetheless, you can’t argue with the numbers. We’re important just because there’s so damn many of us and because we have very different ideas than generations that came before us. And, for the most part, I think you have to admit that we changed most things for the better. (Please ignore the 1970s. We made big hair mistakes among other things.)

This is an especially significant trend for cities like my hometown of Madison because college towns are attractive places to retire. It’s also important for every region to consider these trends, for we might find that urban centers are generally more accommodating to a healthy aging lifestyle and so we may see a reverse migration of Americans who moved to the suburbs to raise a family and now return to the urban center to enjoy its advantages and amenities.

You might think this is a problem or at least a challenge, but let’s look at it as an opportunity. Let me give three examples.

First, things we do to accommodate aging (much like things we do to accommodate young people who bike) are generally good for the community in general. The AP article points out that good urban infrastructure works much better for older folks than the traditional suburb. Any environment that doesn’t demand driving everywhere and that has good facilities for walking and biking and mass transit is good for older people. But it’s also good for kids and for everybody else.

Second, we shouldn’t forget that many BB’s didn’t drop their social activism as they got older — or if they did do that to raise a family they’re ready to return to it now. That means there’s tremendous potential for volunteerism on nonprofit boards, for tutoring, mentoring, and lots of other socially constructive activities.

Third, places will grow in importance. Seniors with talent and wisdom to share will need to find places to mix it up with younger people who can benefit. We should rethink the traditional senior center and focus more on community centers that are welcoming to all generations. And public libraries won’t just be stacks of books presided over by whisperers. They will be (as many already are) places to gather around and share ideas — again a natural habitat for older, retired Americans.

People of my generation have a huge responsibility. Because there are fewer folks behind us to support us as we age we have a special obligation to stay healthy and to give back to our communities. Cities that work for all generations will be the healthy cities of the future.

So how do we change the physical reality of our cities so that they work better for us as we age?

Well, hazards in getting around are a big problem. Investments in rebuilding sidewalks or retrofitting neighborhoods that don’t have them will be important. Public transportation will be more important than ever as more seniors give up their cars or drive less. We might find that transit systems will see more daytime use so the usual heavy concentration on rush hours might need to be rethought.

The main point is that our aging society gives us yet another strong reason to promote new urbanism and reinvestment in older urban areas. It’s good to remind ourselves of Jane Jacobs’ four recommendations for successful neighborhoods: short blocks, mixed uses, different buildings in terms of age and size, and population density.

What most of us need as we get older and leave the regular work world is a place to go. Aging can be terribly isolating and can lead to depression and an overall lower quality of life. The physical set up of a place matters and can play a huge role in how we age. Places that make walking easy and safe, that have densities to justify frequent mass transit, and that have meaningful "third places" (neither work nor home), whether that’s a coffee shop, corner grocery, community center or library — those are the kinds of places that work not just for seniors but for us all.

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