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By 2050, aging baby boomers are expected to swell the population of Americans 65 and older to 89 million—more than twice the 2010 population of seniors. Accommodating this surge will require more than just an increase in the capacity of housing for seniors: baby boomers have always had an independent streak, and they will be looking for new models of senior living, ones that align with their values. They are less interested in “retiring” and more interested in maintaining their quality of life and remaining active in their communities. They are interested in environmental responsibility. And they are attracted to the idea of aging at home. To meet these demands, however, requires a radical rethinking of land use.

Despite the recent trend of empty nesters relocating to urban cores, the vast majority of baby boomers live in the suburbs, which means the crucible for experimentation in senior living will have to be in the suburbs. Urban cores offer seniors the advantages inherent in walkable, dense mixed-use places with public transportation options. The challenge is to reintroduce these kinds of multiuse environments into the suburbs.

Perhaps the locations most amenable to this transformation are the many suburban retail centers and office parks that have failed during the course of the economic downturn and that are now ripe for renewal. For many, a new, visionary form of seniors’ housing may be the best catalyst for redevelopment. The challenge for developers is to change the way they build on and sell land, turning underused sites into walkable villages that support intergenerational living and incorporate urban agriculture.

In its current state, the senior-living industry tends to isolate the elderly in closed communities. In the new walkable suburban villages, housing and associated services for seniors may be grouped on the site, but would be close to non-age-restricted housing and collective public spaces, allowing residents to connect across the generations when they wish to.

To respond to baby boomers’ interest in ecology and sustainability, these communities can integrate parks and wetlands—aspects that, integrated into the urban landscape, also make for more habitable, more memorable, more desirable places. Organic urban agriculture, such as rooftop gardening, can reduce the costs and energy usage associated with packaging food and transporting it across long distances, while also serving as a system for water filtration, treatment, retention, and distribution. Treating graywater on site not only conserves water, it also greatly reduces the energy required to transport wastewater long distances for treatment in centralized facilities.

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Left: Community Reservoir, Right: Community Town Square Plaza

Likely candidates for creating such eco-communities would be university-based communities for seniors, in partnership with a private sector developer. At present, most university-based senior communities follow the traditional model, but universities have always been innovators. Dense, mixed-use communities incorporating housing for seniors would allow academic institutions to broaden their outreach and appeals to their alumni. Universities often own adjacent land occupied by strip malls or other uses, and they do not have to pay taxes on the land they purchase. Especially now, in this economic climate when real estate has become more affordable, forward-looking universities should look for ways to acquire land that will generate income in the future.

Ultimately, the demand for radical forms of housing for seniors will come from consumers. The baby boom generation has spearheaded innovation in everything from civil rights to women’s rights. It makes sense that the members of this influential cohort will transform the concept of aging as well.

ULI–The Urban Land Institute