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Public Spaces

Seniors want more livable places, and AARP shows how

Oahu, Hawaii should be the ideal place to walk for transportation, but it has the nation's highest pedestrian fatality rate for senior citizens—more than twice the next-highest state. So the state enacted a Complete Streets policy in 2009, seeking to "reasonably accommodate" everyone—"pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, motorists, and persons of all ages and abilities"—on public roadways.

Photo from Dan Burden, Walkable & Livable Communities Institute, via AARP.

California, meanwhile, seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, passed a law in 2008 integrating transportation and land use planning at all levels, leading to "more transit and fewer auto-dependent communities" and less "suburban development that is far from retail and employment centers."

AARP collected these and many, many more case studies of livability initiatives in a report last year on state policies and practices that enable seniors to "age in place."

The organization says nearly 90 percent of people over age 65 say they want to stay in their home as long as possible. If the graying baby boomers reject the institutionalized old age that has been the fate of so many, communities will have to do a better job accommodating the needs of older residents.

In the year since AARP published its catalogue of best practices, they've taken their program across the country. In conjunction with Governing Magazine, the group has held roundtables in Des Moines, Lansing, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City to talk about the challenges those cities face as they await the so-called "silver tsunami."

Amy Levner, manager of AARP's Home and Community program, says the common thread among rural and urban communities alike is the "pressure on local budgets."

Luckily, very few of the best practices in AARP's handbook have a high price tag. In fact, many of them have the potential to save money (finding multiple uses for public facilities like schools, for example) or make money (like transit-oriented development). The organization suggests everything from integrated planning and complete streets to electric cars that "chirp" to alert pedestrians that a moving car is nearby.

Levner said the roundtables showed the depth of interest and excitement in livable communities. In Utah, the governor himself attended the event. The National Association of Counties, the Agriculture Department, Citigroup, and the Stanford Center on Longevity are among the many partners AARP has recruited to help with the livability effort.

In some cases, the changes AARP advocates for the benefit of the older population can seem contrary to what the older population has chosen for itself. After all, 64 percent of seniors that live in metropolitan areas live outside the urban core, according to AARP. Transportation for America has sounded the alarm about seniors being stuck at home with no mobility options once they stop driving, but those same seniors are the ones declaring their intention to live out their years where they are: in auto-oriented suburbs.

Local jurisdictions can wear themselves out building accessible, affordable multi-family housing in dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhoods, but the fact is, seniors have expressed their desire to stay in their own homes.

Levner says there's more nuance than that in the 90 percent statistic, and that really, what boomers are saying is that they're not about to take off for Florida or Arizona like their parents did. The 2011 report echoes that interpretation, stressing the importance of staying in the same community, whether or not seniors change houses.

During a lifetime, people develop connections to place and form relationships with neighbors, doctors, hairdressers and shopkeepers. They become intimately familiar with the route to downtown, the rhythm of summer concerts at the band shell park, the best places to get a coveted burger and personalized greeting. These associations, of value to both the individual and the community, cannot be quickly or easily replicated in a new environment. In essence, they can play a pivotal role in successful aging.

But the crux of that same report is the statistic that nearly 90 percent of seniors "want to stay in their residence for as long as possible, and 80 percent believe their current residence is where they will always live" (emphasis mine).

Livability improvements will benefit all generations and demographics, and the changes to accommodate seniors will be welcome someday—if not by the boomer generation, then by the next cohort of retirees. And they're not just for seniors. In fact, the other demographic that's equally passionate about improved transit and walkability is the millennials, four decades younger than the boomers.

"Our communities are very much structured around school-age children," Levner said. "But in the future, kids are going to make up a much smaller percentage of the population. Fortunately, a lot of the livable-communities features we want to see implemented benefit everybody."

As AARP noted in its report, localities looking to accommodate seniors can improve services for everyone else. With rural inter-city transportation on a starvation diet due to budget cuts, for instance, seniors aren't the only ones in need of good options:

Montana has made a concerted effort to address these issues. Three years ago, the state had nine rural transportation systems; today, there are almost 40. To achieve this, the state went to city and county governments and several county Councils on Aging (each of which already operated some type of bus service) and offered to help them devise and pay for a coordinated plan. "We went to these Councils on Aging and said, 'You're already running a senior bus service; if you open your doors to everyone, print a schedule and follow the FTA guidelines, we will help you pull it all together and receive FTA funding,'" said [Audrey Allums, transit section supervisor for the Montana DOT].

There are many communities that aren't doing enough to prepare for the demographic shifts that are underway, however. Some are barely even aware of them. "There are a lot of localities that are not thinking about this yet—to a surprising degree, actually," said Levner.

But some communities do see the writing on the wall. Governing reported in September that officials in Arlington, Virginia have quietly set about widening sidewalks, installing crosswalk countdown clocks, and lowering bus platforms in anticipation of a graying populace.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.
Tanya Snyder is the former editor of Streetsblog USA, which covers issues of national transportation policy. She previously covered Congress for Pacifica and public radio. She lives car-free in a transit-oriented and bike-friendly neighborhood of Washington, DC. 


Add a comment »

I think AARP is slowly, but surely adopting a "smart growth" component to their advocacy. If they really start to throw their muscle around, they could be a very potent force for safer streets and better communities.

by thump on Dec 19, 2012 2:12 pm • linkreport

They'd be crazy not to get behind smart growth. It would do wonders for seniors if we had a lot more smart growth. Anyone who's been to the Plaza's of Espagna or the Piazza's of Italy can see the elderly lounging their day's away in the familiar company of thier community. The kids kicking the soccer ball against the church wall, the young adults strutting in front of eachother in cafes, it's all there.

Moco is in the process of planning a 10-11 story affordable apartment building right behind the new Silver Spring Library (just starting construction) and right down the street from Veterans Plaza. Best move ever. The elderly watching over the young'uns, everybody vibing off eachother instead of friending eachother through a computer screen.

by Thayer-D on Dec 19, 2012 2:28 pm • linkreport

A lot of seniors have to age in place because they're mortgaged to the gills to pay for their Millennials' college and housing and some even have a Gen X'er back in the house.

Seriously, seniors are mostly pedestrians and need walkability, transit, and car-sharing. They're just not as fast to catch onto new transit trends.

And many could use the extra income if zoning allows them to sub-divide their home into smaller units.

by Tom Coumaris on Dec 19, 2012 3:02 pm • linkreport

Was in Oahu last year at this time. Hardly ideal for pedestrians. Honolulu is filled with steep hills---all those old volcanos. There is fairly good public transit and much of central Honolulu has density, but much of the area is sprawling and the outlying towns (where housing is most affordable) often lack large /dense snough population bases to support a full range of local walking amenities. The cost of housing really limits who can enjoy the benefits of density. As a place to drive, the place is a mess. The frewways are over capacity and arterials have their own gridlock, while one ways treets and other quirks make short distances quite challenging. Coming with a law would be great if they had ready models for actually implementing the proposals.

by Rich on Dec 19, 2012 8:19 pm • linkreport

Tom, just yet another reason why the suburban single family home on an acre of land is bad for the country.

by Alan B. on Dec 20, 2012 12:59 pm • linkreport

Just curious but what are the numbers for the sampling. What percentage of total senior population in the United States (including US territories) wants this vs those who don't.

by kk on Dec 22, 2012 2:06 pm • linkreport

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