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Where is the AARP on urbanist issues?

The AARP is one of the nation's largest lobbies, spending over $20 million per year on lobbying. The AARP also supports livable communities. So why is advocacy for livable communities heroically carried out by small non-profits that few have heard of?

Photo by The Alliance for Biking and Walking on Flickr.

This asymmetry between the advocates for urbanism and urbanism's actual constituency is largely responsible for stereotypes of smart growth advocates as young hipsters.

I have a dear, 80-year-old aunt in Nashville who had a stroke last year that has kept her from driving. A widow, she maintained an active life attending concerts and sports events and going out to dinner. She now spends most days alone at home watching television because there's nothing to walk to.

What is her lobby doing to advocate for her and the millions of elderly Americans whose engagement with life ceased when they could no longer drive?

AARP's "Six-Point Action Plan" (large PDF, see p. 94) for livable communities includes the following policy priorities.

  • Localities should remove zoning barriers to such housing alternatives as accessory apartments and shared housing.
  • Localities should carefully consider efficient mixed-use development to reduce distances between residences, shopping sites, recreation, health care facilities, and other community features. Zoning requirements should be reviewed in this context.
  • State and local jurisdictions should create or adapt complete public transportation systems designed to meet the needs and preferences of diverse community residents, and communities should coordinate all agencies with an interest in transportation and the infrastructure that supports transportation.
  • State and local jurisdictions should design and retrofit the travel environment for walking and bicycling for safety, connectivity, and accessibility.
While it makes sense that these would be priorities for the nation's seniors, that the AARP agrees would surprise those who have testified before local and state bodies in support of these exact policies. Opponents of these AARP positions are usually eligible to be AARP members, while advocates are more often not.

When the AARP takes a position on an issue, they represent over 40 million seniors. Furthermore, Census data indicates that the population of those 65 and older will increase 33% from 2005-2020.

Advocates with this sizable constituency would be influential in the local and state debates that determine whether communities are livable or are single-use, car-dependent bedroom communities.

The AARP is right to make livable communities a policy priority, but it is unclear what they are actually doing to advance this priority. As the size of the nation's elderly community continues to grow, let's hope that the AARP puts their money where their mouth is in advocating for their interests in livable communities.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


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As a government employee who is charged with looking at smarth growth/design policies, I can tell you I get alot of communication from AARP. They are always putting on events to showcase their research and advocacy efforts.

by jh on Feb 8, 2011 1:52 pm • linkreport

The paradox is that in a lot of states with aging populations, like Florida, the motto has been "roads roads roads." Moreover, a lot older people try to escape transit connected areas and move to rural areas where they can live in ranch houses, quiet neighborhoods, etc. My grandmother had it good. She lived in an area where there was a streetcar.

by aaa on Feb 8, 2011 2:07 pm • linkreport

Let's be careful, the AARP also lobbies for massively reduced fares on mass transit for seniors. In fact, everyone over 65 rides for HALF price on Metrorail!

Someone explain how a 65 year old millionaire deserves this benefit. It should be reserved for those who truly need the break, not rich or middle-class old people with a powerful lobby.

by WRD on Feb 8, 2011 2:27 pm • linkreport

Each year, the AARP and AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students) sponsor a competition to design communities for all age groups, but specifically for seniors. You can check out the entries from last year's competition here. It's a really cool look at ways we can make urban places that are suitable for all age groups

And no, I'm not just posting this because I won second place with my proposal to redevelop Hechinger Mall as a mixed-age neighborhood =)

by dan reed! on Feb 8, 2011 2:29 pm • linkreport


Yes, AARP does sponsor design competitions and provide research on livable communities to elected officials. And that's great.

But let's get real. Politicians are thinking of the constituencies behind different positions, and they know that the AARP won't call them if they vote for more roads and less transit. They also know that their elderly constituents won't call them because they know the AARP won't tell their members how they voted.

Why are groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth carrying the AARP's water when it comes to pushing elected officials to make politically tough decisions for livable communities?

by Ken Archer on Feb 8, 2011 2:42 pm • linkreport

Also, AARP's two biggest issues will always be Social Security and Medicare. They cause our budget deficit and force tax increases on us young whippersnappers.

Every time I think of AARP, PPACA, Medicare, or the budget deficit, I always think of this chart.

by WRD on Feb 8, 2011 3:04 pm • linkreport

AARP is part of the Transportation for America coalition, which is pushing for institutional changes for the next multi-year federal transportation reauthorization. The great thing is that AARP "gets it" when it comes to walkable, transit accessible communities. I don't think they've been as good at communicating their stance to the public or to their own members.

In general, the most compelling stories about the need for walkable communities come from children, the disabled, and seniors who due to their situation don't have, or have lost the ability to drive a car. These stories need to be told to a broader audience, and AARP is in a position to do so.

by Will on Feb 8, 2011 3:42 pm • linkreport

I just dont think its something AARP gets pressure on. Sure their staff may understand walkability concerns for older americans, but since most people drive until their 80s (or more) these issues become subsumed by their overwhelming medical concerns. Also, the majority of donations probably come from those seniors who are in their 60s/early 70s when they can still drive everywhere.

by Eric on Feb 8, 2011 3:52 pm • linkreport

They funded a bunch of sustainable transportation reports produced by Project for Public Spaces:

That doesn't mean they are doing hardcore advocacy. Plus, given the car-centric nature of society and likely of their members, it's not gonna be a key point of their public agenda, especially vis-a-vis health care related issues, and their revenue generating operations.

by Richard Layman on Feb 8, 2011 4:34 pm • linkreport

I think it might get better as baby boomers age. I think at least some of them have seen their parent's struggles and are beginning to think about a wider range of choices.

by Kate on Feb 8, 2011 4:49 pm • linkreport

This is what AARP, the National Complete Streets Coalition and the Institute of Transportation Engineers is doing about it:

by Some Ideas on Feb 8, 2011 5:33 pm • linkreport

@WRD, I believe the theory is that those 65+ are retired, and thus do not ride transit during peak hours and to peak job locations. They're more likely to be "choice" riders going to the museum at 2pm. So the cheap fare is to encourage them to ride.

I think a big issue is denial. Even 60 year olds with an 85 year old mother who hasnt been able to drive for 10 years doesn't think "that will be me next, what do I do about it" but think "that will never happen to me." And once they hit the age where they can no longer's too late. They're trapped at home, ignored by the world and can no longer lobby for their benefit.

by JJJJJ on Feb 8, 2011 6:33 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure you are helping your case here Ken.

Mouthing off that allies who are clearly making a positive contribution (see comments above) aren't prioritizing your core issue above their core issue...

...and stereotyping about their constituencies while you do so (Opponents of these AARP positions are usually eligible to be AARP members)... not how you build alliances to get stuff done.

Reminds me of my allies in the enviro world who had the snottiness to whine because Obama took on healthcare before climate. With friends like that, I don't need enemies.

Seriously. This post is counterproductive. You should retract it.

by DavidDuck on Feb 8, 2011 11:28 pm • linkreport

Ken, Did you consider the case that most elderly are able to drive, and that it's actually walking that becomes the bigger issue as one ages. An environment that allows easier car access is far more friendly to the elderly than one which requires a lot of walking. And a city block can be a lot of walking for some elderly.

by Lance on Feb 9, 2011 12:00 am • linkreport

Ken and crew,

Stay tuned to what happens with the Hine development in Ward 6. I think you'll see a whole hearted effort to build density that is both mixed-income, and mixed-generation. And it's about more than just transportation, it's also space and place--think universal design, wrap around services and a civic structure that undergirds the effort (Capitol Hill Village).

On the Hill, we have two types of gentrification in play. The first is racial and socioeconomic, which receives much of the press and limited political attention. The second is generational, which receives no press and little political attention (except as an outgrowth of debate around other issues, i.e. parking). If gentrification is ultimately an issue of displacement, Hine offers the Hill community an opportunity to build an integrating structure, vice one that displaces.

I am optimistic that if the community and developers collaborate effectively, and market forces cooperate, we can make this vision happen. And we don't need the AARP to do it...

by B Pate on Feb 9, 2011 12:05 am • linkreport

Thank you lance for proving my theory about denial. I'm sure you'll never have a problem driving, ever.

by JJJJJ on Feb 9, 2011 12:36 am • linkreport

I would bring the elderly together with transit oriented developments through zoning incentives. Taking care of our elderly by pairing them with reliable public transit seems only humane. Then I might through in incentives for child care facilities, under the assumption that if you're a single mom, you'd probably love not to have a car payment if at all possible. As a social worker, I'd bring the elderly together with the very young in our increasingly isolated society by designing public spaces that encourage both play and people watching (see Luxembourg Park, Paris)

It would all be very socialist, but then again a lot of people would appreciate it.

by Thayer-D on Feb 9, 2011 7:00 am • linkreport

Back home, both my grandmoms lived in elderly homes on top and next to small malls, containing at least a supermarket as well as a hairdresser. Moving there from their old homes improved their lives enormously. The fact that my one grandmom could take the elevator pretty much into the supermarket made her cook fresh meals again, in stead of mostly frozen meals.

by Jasper on Feb 9, 2011 8:46 am • linkreport

AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys are active in liveable communities cases such as the recent massive settlement in California concerning sidewalk and "park and ride" accessibility where they represented the plaintiffs. Check out

by Ken Z. on Feb 9, 2011 9:10 am • linkreport

From the League of American Bicyclists e-news update:

The AARP Public Policy Institute is seeking applicants for a Senior Policy Research Analyst to join the Livable Communities/Long-Term Care Team. Find out more through AAA's Career Center:

by Darren on Feb 9, 2011 11:07 am • linkreport

The problem with the AARP as an organization is that they lack integration between the national office and state offices.

While there is a lot of important work that can be done at a national level, their livable communities impact agenda requires a strong, local presence. State offices are unwilling to do any state or local advocacy work on mobility options or housing choice.

As a long time observer of AARP on urbanist issues, I see a tension in the organization that has yet to be reconciled. Are they a membership organization that provides products and services that enhance the lives of their members? Or, are they an advocacy organization?

As important as health care reform is to future of this country, it is fair to note that AARP's involvement in this national debate did nothing to make health care more affordable for 50 to 65, an important segment of their membership.

Arguably, livable communities is the next great challenge for this country and for the AARP. They don't seem to be up to the challenge.

by fairandaccurate on Feb 9, 2011 11:26 am • linkreport

I have removed a comment by "the student ghetto" attacking Ken on the basis of his earlier post. We do not allow attacking contributors personally. Please confine your comments to discussing the points made in this post, not about some opinions you might have formed about an author, knowing extremely little about him, from one thing he wrote. Thank you.

by David Alpert on Feb 9, 2011 3:04 pm • linkreport

@fairandaccurate -- AARP is actually quite involved at the state level. They've been active members (and often leaders) in a number of state legislative campaigns to make streets safer for all users. Here are a just a few:

New York

Given their broad membership base, they cover a lot more than livable communities/smart growth in the work and outreach, which sometimes downplays the critical role they and their members are actually playing.

by Isobel on Feb 11, 2011 1:09 am • linkreport

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