John McIlwainJohn McIlwain

There is good news for cities and suburban town centers in the rapid growth of the nation’s senior population. More urban residents are aging in place and a small but steady flow of empty nesters is continuing to move into urban areas. In contrast to the suburbs, the density of urban areas provides an environment that more naturally supports people as they age. There usually is better public transit; good health care; a healthier, walkable lifestyle; and easy access to services, stores, and human interaction. An additional benefit is that urban areas allow seniors to get out of their cars and off the roads, reducing driving-associated risks to themselves and to everyone else who uses the roads.

From the standpoint of an urban locale, a growing population of seniors presents both opportunities and challenges. Seniors are generally wealthier than the other major urban population—their kids, aka the echo boomers or generation Y. According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, the median net worth of households headed by adults ages 65 and older was $170,494 in 2009 contrasted with a median net worth of $3,662 for households headed by adults younger than 35. As Bill Frey, Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution, puts it, “Areas that show growth in. . . seniors, due to both ‘aging in place’ and migration, are likely to benefit from their above-average economic attributes.” (“The Uneven Aging and ‘Younging’ of America: State and Metropolitan Trends in the 2010 Census,” Brookings, June 2011.)

Also, seniors pay taxes but do not require schools, have low crime rates, and are often active in civic and volunteer activities, benefiting the city at large. They are also active voters. While seniors do require additional services that can put pressure on limited local finances, overall they are a net plus for any urban community.

That said, urban areas need to have programs that support seniors and to improve their physical layout to make life easier for them. Many of the physical improvements needed are actually little more than basic urban common sense: benches at transit stops, access to bathrooms, zoning that allows portions of homes to be rented out, well-maintained sidewalks, and pedestrian zones separate from bicycles. These all make a big difference for all residents, not just the aging.

Recently, in response to two converging global demographic trends—aging and urbanization—the World Health Organization (WHO) began studying aspects of urban life that make cities age-friendly. From this came the creation of the “Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities.” To date, 35 cities from around the world have joined the network. The goals of the network are to:

  • Provide technical support and training;
  • Link cities to WHO and to each other;
  • Facilitate the exchange of information and best practices; and
  • Ensure that interventions taken to improve the lives of older people are appropriate, sustainable, and cost effective.

Membership in the network is a demonstration of commitment by a city to work to improve its age-friendliness. To become a member, a city commits to “undertake a process of continually assessing and improving [its] age-friendliness.” For an example of a survey done by a U.S. city, take a look at Portland, Oregon’s survey.

In 2007, WHO published the “Global Age-Friendly Cities: A Guide,” which focuses on eight topic areas:

  • Outdoor spaces and buildings;
  • Transportation;
  • Housing;
  • Social participation;
  • Respect and social inclusion;
  • Civic participation and employment;
  • Communication and information; and
  • Community support and health services.

The topics in effect cover both the “hardware” of the physical design of a city and the “software” of the social programs needed to support seniors living in urban areas.

WHO also published checklists for each of these topics. The items are wide ranging, including some of the basics of good city management such as keeping public areas clean, safe, and well lit. Other items are more targeted to seniors, such as seating and public toilet facilities, the timing of traffic lights, and ensuring that sidewalks can accommodate wheelchairs.

Certain items, however, are not on these lists, but they should be. For instance, there is no mention of ensuring that seniors’ housing is located in those parts of a city that have good public transit. The quality of access to public transit naturally varies within any city, with the result that those areas with the best connectivity are often the most valuable and expensive. There needs to be an adequate supply of housing for seniors in these locations that includes a wide range of affordability. Achieving this usually requires government subsidies and so can be challenging to accomplish; nonetheless, it is important.

Another item missing from these checklists is the easy availability of indoor “third places” in which seniors can congregate. Parks are listed in the WHO checklists and are valuable places for seniors to meet others, but nowhere is the weather always lovely. Seniors need places indoors in which to gather and play bridge or chess, read and chat together, or organize socially and politically.

Universal design is not mentioned, either. This is a set of principles intended to guide the design and development of the entire built environment, both public and private. When followed, they enable people of all ages and physical abilities to use all of the space. Parks and other public places, stores, offices, and homes can all benefit from these design guidelines, opening up entire indoor and outdoor spaces to aging seniors as well as to everyone else.

As a new generation of people ages, new types of facilities also will be needed. The next wave of seniors is the leading edge of the baby boomers, who are expected to be more active and engaged than prior generations. Senior centers will need broadband, video conferencing, and computer and business services along with support and training for older entrepreneurs. Senior centers will need to become more like the hoteling facilities many major corporations are now creating for employees who come to the office only on occasion.

Many U.S. cities are beginning to look for ways to make their communities more age-friendly. For example, New York City, a member of the WHO network, is: 

  • Using school buses to transport seniors to shopping after the buses have taken the kids to school.
  • Creating “aging improvement districts” where stores commit to put out chairs for seniors, use larger signs, and keep aisles open to make them more handicapped accessible; and
  • Increasing the timing of traffic lights to accommodate the slower pace of seniors (this, in a city that has the fastest recorded pedestrian pace in the country). New York now has three such districts.

Other examples include:

  • Atlanta, which is supporting the creation of “lifelong communities,” which link housing, transit, basic and preventive health care, and easy access to services; and
  • Philadelphia, which is considering revising its zoning code to allow seniors to rent out rooms in upper floors to provide both income and possibly people to support them in living at home.

One final note: All of these guidelines and issues are as important for suburban town centers as they are for central cities. As more suburban town centers are developed and redeveloped, keeping the issues that support seniors in mind during the planning and development phases will be important. Suburban town centers provide important alternatives to seniors who have no interest in living downtown. Instead of staying in the midst of a suburban community designed for young families with kids and cars and few services for them, they might be enticed to move to a nearby town center instead. This would allow senior citizens to remain connected to nearby family and friends while having the benefits that urban living can provide the aging.