This article appeared on Metropolis Magazine's Point of View Blog as "Old City: the New Paradigm."
The current conversation about redesigning cities usually focuses on Boomers or Milllennials, two extremes of the age spectrum. The largest percent of people are between 30-64 years old and everyone will eventually be elderly--a reality no one can escape.
We are a global society, more savvy, fashionable and in-the-know than ever before, and most of us want an urbanized lifestyle, meaning a blend of great food and conversation, tech modernization, access to healthy and alternative life choices, and being at the center of the action.
The best cities in the world like New York, Berlin, and Tokyo market themselves as meccas for young, energetic people that promise diversity and innovation. This generates a lack of ideal architecture for people over the age of 65 and shuts the door on them. Thus we lose the knowledge, stability, and experience they provide to civilization.
More on "old" cities, after the break...
Century of Immigration
Population growth in rich nations will be driven by immigration, because first world birth rates have slowed over the last decades. Many immigrants enjoy multi-generational households. They prefer living among family versus striking out on their own. This is a sharp contrast to major cities branding themselves as future hubs for lone wolf innovators living in little apartments. Small units can’t house a family of three or four, let alone one with grandparents, uncles, and aunts in tow. Elderly-centric urban design could foster a new paradigm for developments in cities that make these factors assets.
The Other Electric Vehicle
Retirement communities integrate golf carts as a primary mode of transportation. In comparison, cities spent the last decade investing in bicycle access. Imagine incorporating golf carts with bike lanes. It could enhance mobility and reduce air pollution. Electric bikes are already kinda doing this. Golf carts could outpace the growth of bicycle ridership, and completely eliminate cars.
Some buildings, such as airports, already integrated golf carts where they are used to bus travelers to and from gates. Urbanized golf carts could be huge for electric vehicles by creating an entire new market for personalized electric transportation.
Elderly-based mixed-use developments would include medical facilities for easy access. A residential tower of 20 or 30 floors would have doctors and dental offices housed within them. A simple elevator ride would get you to your weekly check-up, or the front desk could send up your prescription. Green design would be mandatory meaning better indoor air quality, energy efficiency and overall livability.
Open and public spaces would be incorporated into the morphology fostering farmers’ markets and lively plaza life. The big idea is to bring the city to the elderly and reverse the necessity of older people using ill-designed infrastructure. These new developments could include food truck parking and community gardens creating a service for growing trends as street and local foods.
Testing it Out on NYC
To test this idea, we proposed to create a project for DUMBO in Brooklyn, an uber-hip neighborhood in NYC. Situated under the Manhattan Bridge with views across the East River, the area’s old warehouses have been converted to offices and residential units. It’s a perfect blend of grit + funk + coffee + industrial ghosts + graffiti. Designers and architects, photographers, actors, and models flock to Water St reet and the riverfront park. Rarely do you see anyone older than 55 – and nearly never over 65. So we imagined a design that embraces young and old with buildings that commission graffiti, have ramps for golf carts, and is a mix of all ages.
Benefit of a Higher Average Age
Lots of people move to cities, but leave shortly thereafter. Young people are transient. Older populations like to grow roots and establish communities. A cultivated sense of community could attract and retain talent, because the big city can be a lonely place no matter your age. Seniors could anchor neighborhoods keeping the best and brightest from moving away, making stronger economies and workforces. Elderly-centric cities are good business and design. Cities shouldn’t leave a prized resource like seniors out of the picture. Especially when they could be at the center of it.
Neil Chambers, LEED-AP is the CEO and Founder of Chambers Design, a research-based, contemporary design company, focused on next generation architectural and technological solutions based in DUMBO Brooklyn. He is the author of Urban Green: Architecture for the Future. Neil’s work includes urban design, green building design, energy assessment, master planning and habitat restoration. He is interested in the relationship between ecosystems, ecological services, buildings and infrastructure. He has taught at NYU and FIT as well as spoken throughout the United States and around the world.