The Aging Boom and Walkable Communities
At his recent talk at Lehigh University, renowned urbanist/philosopher/novelist James Howard Kunstler declared that we must entirely rethink how we design and build our communities. He pointed to key trends—such as limited access to credit for financing huge suburban projects (especially the needed infrastructure) and a shrinking global supply of oil (which had been critical to the car-based community designs of the past 50 years)—that add up to one key conclusion: more compact forms of development are our only option.
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, there may be another reason for communities to look at moving away from sprawling patterns of development: the fact that suburban development is ill suited to the increasingly aging U.S. population.
‘As the country ages, suburbia’s widely assumed benefits—privacy, elbow room, affordability—tend to vanish. Maintaining yards and homes requires more effort; driving everywhere, and for everything, becomes expensive and, eventually, impossible. (Research shows that men and women who reach their 70s, on average, outlive their ability to drive by six and 10 years, respectively.)
Even something as simple as the absence of sidewalks can discourage older adults from walking through their neighborhoods and seeing other people.
Suddenly, “all that privacy that drew people to the suburbs in the first place can become isolation,’ says Ellen Dunham-Jones, associate professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.’
The article goes on to describe how suburbs in Atlanta have been retrofitted to include urban amenities such as a mixture of uses at the block and neighborhood levels, pedestrian-friendly design, and neighborhood centers.
That this apparent trend is leading to more compact development—what the article terms “lifelong communities”—is not a bad thing. But it would be a sad irony if our nation meets this increased demand for urban-like settings without realizing the opportunities for redevelopment of actual urban places, which already have the necessary infrastructure, street-grid design, traditional housing stock and other elements conducive to walkable communities.
In the end, it is crucial that we have policies, funding priorities, and planning approaches–at the federal, state and regional levels–that incentivize the redevelopment of our cities and other core communities.