In recent years there has been a lot of talk in the United States about our aging population, mostly in terms of social security funds and medicare. We have asked how we should deal with the impending problem that our elderly will outnumber the population that will serve as their caretakers. While speculations for a solution have generally settled within the realm of the economy, urban planners and architects are asking a different set of questions and looking for solutions regarding how we design. It is important to note, that while most of the discussion has been framed about the aging “baby-boomer” generation, Jack Rowe – speaking at the symposium for Designing Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging Population in Washington, DC - pointed out that this concern is a conservative estimate of the bigger problem in our “demographic transformation”. In fact, the trend is far more expansive; medical advancements and a longer life expectancy mean that for the next few generations each aging population is expected to outlive its parents and will exceed the population of its children. This makes the issue at hand a more over-arching concern, or as Rowe later states, an issue that all members of society must face.
This is why we must think about architecture and urban planning in terms of adaptability for the aging, as we have already starting thinking about it in terms of handicapped accessibility.
More after the break…
Talking about an aging population means acknowledging that our roles in society change and our environments need to be designed in ways that accommodate these changes and make adaptability possible. The single-family house in a suburban town – the utopian image of independence, self-reliance and security – has in some cases become the antithesis to comfortable aging. The house, built with a young family in mind, is not capable of easily accommodating the concerns that go along with being elderly. It is this lack of diversity often found in an auto-dependent environment that lacks nearby amenities that poses a significant problem for an aging population. In that case, planners and architects must consider what a private single-family house looks like when the demographic of the people living in it change. How can it be augmented to be a space that accommodates different aspects of aging. How does it address accessibility or upkeep? Can it be converted into multiple dwelling units or rentable spaces when children grow up and “leave the nest”? These are realities that change what it means to design for the future, especially in cases where many senior citizens prefer to continue living in their homes.
An article in Urban Land by Joan Mooney points out how in some cases, designing adaptability for an aging population can go hand in hand with sustainability. In Mashpee Commons, Massachusetts, for example, inactive strip mall parking lots have been transformed into community spaces that are built up to provide housing above amenities. Likewise, in Columbia Pike in Arlington County, Virginia, the community is developing a five-mile area of mixed-use buildings with affordable housing for seniors, nearby amenities and proposed streetcar will be built with funding from the collected taxes. In both scenarios, “density, connectivity, transit and social interaction” are pivotal to creating an environment that addresses the needs of an elderly population. Now, don’t these elements sound familiar? Lisa Selin Davis points them out in her article for Atlantic Cities about adaptable housing for the aging, but it certainly rings true for urban planning of sustainable communities, as well. Achieving one goal does not negate the other, because as Jack Rowe has pointed out, as designers, planners and architects, we are looking for strategies that benefit all members of society by providing inclusive solutions.
Speculation on solutions proposed in Davis’s article oscillate between design- and policy-oriented measures. Community is a big proponent in some cases, such as developing programs that generate a dialogue within community spaces and educational programs that incorporate the skills of retirees and students. It also implies making community centers can be vehicles for inter-generational activities. Rather than isolating senior centers from other demographics, the design and policy solutions proposed, both by the symposium in D.C. and Davis, offer options that are inclusive. Ultimately, the conversation about housing an aging population is reminiscent of the discussions concerning urban and community development as well as sustainability. That is because if we function as a society, design can address the needs of every member of society. Community, accessibility, and inter-connectivity propel social environments that foster trust, safety and care for one another.