The planning and development movement toward retrofitting suburbia with more walkable and livable communities has an unexpected yet quietly powerful champion: AARP (formerly referred to as the American Association of Retired Persons), the national organization for people aged 50 and over. Not a traditional interest group in housing and community development circles, AARP nonetheless has published public policy briefs advocating transit-oriented development and “complete streets,” among other issues, and has even created a how-to manual for its members to lobby their local communities for sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly streets. Just this month, AARP pushed the introduction of “complete streets” legislation in Alabama that would require new streets to have sidewalks, crosswalks and paved shoulders for biking.

This is all part of AARP’s cause to enhance older Americans’ quality of life. Over the years, the organization has found that 85 percent of surveyed individuals want to remain in their communities for as long as possible, yet more than half of seniors who don’t drive stay at home on any given day because they lack transportation options, including walkable environments. To AARP, “losing mobility can mean losing independence,” as described in one policy brief.

Recently, ULI caught up with David Shotwell, AARP’s senior director of livable communities, to learn more about the organization’s interest and advocacy.

How did AARP become interested in the subject of livable communities?

Shotwell: Actually, it’s part of the roots. We were founded in 1959, and in 1961 our founder designed a demonstration home called the House of Freedom. This home had many of the interior design features we talk about today—a step-free entrance, wider doorways and hallways, and even such details as raised electrical outlets. A universally designed home is a walkable neighborhood’s “other half.” Great home design goes only as far as the neighborhood—if you can’t get out and about easily, how good is that home for you, really? Today, AARP continues to be interested in livable communities because our surveys show that older people, if given a choice, want to remain in their homes and communities. We have to make sure the built environment is conducive to a good life for folks who want to stay where they [are].

How does AARP define livable communities?

Shotwell: Basically, housing and transportation alternatives that can keep our members active and independent, especially those without a car. So, it means access to mass transportation options close to their homes. It means more walkable streets, because walking is the second most popular form of transportation after driving. It means convenient access to grocery stores, pharmacies, and community activities. And it means having affordable and accessible housing within our communities.

What is AARP doing to promote livability?

Shotwell: We tackle this issue from a number of perspectives. We have our own Public Policy Institute that has produced research reports on, for example, the benefits of transit-oriented development and complete streets. We lobby Congress on a wide variety of issues, including those related to livability, such as investments in public transportation and the need for continued funding for subsidized affordable housing. We have an education outreach arm that reaches out and communicates with states and industry groups like the National Association of Home Builders to promote these issues. We also created resource tools, such as a sidewalks-and-streets survey that members can use to identify problems and bring them to public attention. We want to educate our members to get them to think about and understand these things, so they can make changes today, and/or choose their neighborhoods and homes wisely. You can learn more at

Describe some of the influence and impact that AARP’s advocacy has had on communities across the country.

Shotwell: AARP state offices have affected livability from coast to coast and beyond. AARP’s work in Hawaii is a representative example. Hawaii is the most dangerous state in the nation [in which] to be a pedestrian over the age of 65 and the fifth most dangerous state [in which] to be a pedestrian of any age. In a multiyear campaign, AARP focused public attention on the problem with pedestrian audits of dangerous intersections and work on advisory boards with police and community organizations that eventually led to passage of a law to improve Hawaii’s 50 most dangerous intersections. With AARP keeping the livable communities momentum going, the Hawaii legislature in 2009 passed a Complete Streets Act requiring state and county transportation departments to accommodate access and mobility for all users of public highways. But AARP Hawaii is hardly alone in making our members’ communities more livable.

Leaders from AARP Georgia to AARP Texas have been involved in metropolitan planning for the aging of their cities’ populations. AARP Louisiana convened post-Katrina redevelopment planning in Holly Grove, Louisiana. And the Burlington, Vermont, Livable Community Project pledged $1 million over ten years to help that city meet the housing and mobility needs of its population. It is all part of helping our members live their best lives.