This month, my grandma moved into a retirement community. In some respects, it’s a significant change for her. After 95 years living in standalone houses, she will be moving into a small, sunny apartment. To do that, she’s had to downsize significantly – donating furniture, giving away belongings, and simply leaving some things behind. (The cycad that my parents gave her decades ago; the lemon tree that I’ve greedily harvested for years.)
But in other respects it’s not such a big step. She’s not moving far – only from Takapuna to Milford. Because there are retirement apartments sprinkled around Auckland, she is able to downsize and stay in the same community. (As John P’s excellent RCG/Transportblog development tracker highlights, there are many more such developments in the works.) That means that she can maintain all of her social ties and everyday habits – same church, same lunch groups, same healthcare facilities, and same proximity to family.
So I’m not worried about Grandma. But it’s making me wonder what’s in store for my parents, who are now in their early 60s.
They live, as they have done for most of the last two decades, on a large section on the edge of one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s many excellent regional parks. It gives them plenty of space to run a business and pursue their hobbies, like my mom’s wine-making and my dad’s shed Ponzi scheme. (He builds workshop space to house the lumber and tools that he will need to build more sheds.)
But it’s not exactly convenient if you can’t drive. (Or bicycle – they’re now spending more time on electric bikes.) Their house is at the top of a rather steep hill, the sidewalks are pretty patchy, and the nearest stores are three kilometres away. There is no bus service anywhere in the vicinity. Things are very spread out in the California suburbs.
While my parents are fit and vigorous, the fact is that at some point in the next two or three decades, they won’t be able to drive. At that point staying in place will no longer be an option. And if they don’t plan ahead, possibly by moving to a more accessible location before they absolutely need to, it could be a difficult change.
I suspect that they are not the only ones facing this dilemma. Many Baby Boomers will not be able to age in place. The post-war sprawl suburbs where they have spent their adult lives are not suitable for people who can’t drive.
There are three main problems with aging in a typical post-war suburb. Fortunately, all can be corrected or ameliorated – but doing so will require us to do some things differently.
The first is a transport problem: street networks and transport choices. As I highlighted in a post last year, designing neighbourhoods primarily for cars – with a hierarchy of cul-de-sacs, collector roads and arterials – don’t work for other transport modes. You can’t run efficient, usable bus services through these neighbourhoods, and it’s slow to walk anywhere. Furthermore, as shown the following image illustrates, changing that is hard due to the fact that you’d need to re-route street patterns:
A related issue is the quality of sidewalks, crosswalks, and other pedestrian infrastructure. In suburbs where most people drive, these tend to be in poor condition or simply non-existent. I have full use of my legs but still find this exasperating. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for people with limited mobility.
Poor transport choices often coincide with segregated land uses. Because older people tend to be less mobile, regardless of mode, their lives can be better when distances to retail and social destinations are short.
Unfortunately, a second issue that will face aging boomers is that post-war zoning codes have generally mandated rigid separation of residential and commercial use. Houses go in one place; shopping and work goes in another.
Here’s an illustration from Pakuranga and Howick in Auckland’s Unitary Plan. The bright pink areas are “centre” zones that allow both residential and retail. Most of the rest – the cream and orange colours – is exclusively residential. While the cream areas are undoubtedly nice beachfront property, people living in them will face constraints as they grow old.
However, this isn’t the only way to build a city. When I was visiting Paris in December, I was struck by the vibrancy of retail options on just about every block in the city. Due to the fact that Paris lacks single-use zoning, it’s possible to get most of life’s daily needs – groceries and company, in particular – met without walking more than 100 metres.
That leads on to a third issue for aging boomers: a lack of housing choices for young and old people alike. Post-war planning has embraced “exclusionary” zoning policies such as large minimum lot sizes or tight controls on multi-family dwellings. Unless these policies are unwound, they will have two negative impacts for aging boomers who are seeking to age in place:
- A lack of neighbourhood density means that local retail and social facilities are not economically viable. Mount Eden, where I live, is a great example of how a mix of housing choices can enable vibrant local retail opportunities. The much-derided 1970s “sausage flats” mean that there is a sufficient critical mass of customers within walking distance. This creates positive spillovers for people living in the suburb’s standalone houses.
- A lack of options for downsizing in place will force people to leave their communities as they age. Retirement homes alone are not a solution to this problem, as some people may prefer to move into a smaller dwelling before they need of aged car. A greater mix of apartments, terraced houses, and units are important for filling this gap in the market.
Comprehensively addressing these three challenges will obviously take a long time. The built environment is persistent, and as a result many of the places we built in decades past will continue to look and feel the same for a long while.
However, I would argue that people who are middle-aged today have a strong incentive to vote for change. Retrofitting the suburbs with better transport choices, more housing choices, and more social and economic opportunities will benefit people of all ages. But it is likely to be especially beneficial – and urgent – for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s who will soon face some hard choices about where to live. It will offer them the best chance of aging gracefully, rather than facing disruption in old age.
What do you think is important for a happy retirement?