Placemaking blog series: The benefits of aging in place - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Placemaking blog series: The benefits of aging in place

Ed Yourdon via Flickr

Throughout January, MPC’s blog, The Connector, is running a series on the tangible benefits of Placemaking. Read the other entries:

Sometimes it’s hard to define what makes a great place, but you know it when you experience it. Great places lure people in with activities, people watching, shopping or just the experience of being around others and feeling a sense of connection. Does this only happen at organic farmers markets or outdoor cafes? Hardly. Placemaking doesn’t just occur in affluent communities or vacation hotspots. Chicago’s 26th street in Little Village, 18th Street in Pilsen, or the Glenwood Market in Rogers Park are evidence that the power of a vibrant public place transcends geographic and demographic boundaries.

Peter Kageyama, author of For the Love of Cities, writes that creating places worth caring about makes for strong communities. We couldn’t agree more. That’s why we have designed a blog series that considers the importance of placemaking for communities through a variety of lenses. The series will explore the economic, environmental, physical and social aspects that produce quantifiable benefits for a community and its residents.  

Here’s the thing about great places: they’re great for all kinds of people, for all kinds of reasons. Often, part of what makes a place great is its walkability, which pays multiple dividends in the form of increased socialization between neighbors, better health outcomes, and economically stronger communities. In addition, vibrant, walkable areas allow the elderly a high quality of life for as long as possible.

Oh, you’re thinking, aging in place. Sticking a handlebar on your bathtub, right? Well, keep reading. As Lisa Selin Davis detailed in a recent Atlantic Cities article, “The Tragedy of Modern Retirement Communities,” the first retirement communities were built in the 1960s when the average life expectancy was 69.7 years. Now that the average life expectancy is closer to 79, people are living longer in an “architecture of endemic loneliness.” While Davis questions the separation of senior citizens from the rest of the world in this manner, Ben Brown points out in

Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces,

Ready for the Geezer Glut? Think beyond ‘aging in place’,” that stressing universal design by customizing seniors’ homes for wheelchairs, adding handles to bathtubs, etc., doesn’t help much when the senior’s home is isolated or car-dependent to begin with. In other words, it’s great to be able to get out of your bathtub, but if you can’t go anywhere else, it’s a small consolation. Brown points out that when we presume connectivity by car, we exile anyone without the ability to drive. Research shows that a good portion of life is often left when that ability wanes: A 2002 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that on average, men outlive their ability to drive by 6 years; women outlive their driving ability by 10 years.[i]

This reminds me of something Andres Duany, co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), said at the 2012 CNU conference. We design our cities, he said, so that the old and the young are completely helpless. Why? Because they can’t drive.

So what does this mean for the goal of aging in place? It means we need more great places to begin with -- places where as people grow older, they can still have a high quality of life despite their changing abilities. Walkable places allow seniors greater flexibility and independence; when an elderly person is no longer comfortable driving, she can easily walk to get groceries or hop the bus to visit her doctor.

Looking down on Trapani's compact footprint.

This gets me thinking about a recent visit to Sicily to see my relatives. They live in Trapani, a seaside town of about 70,000. When I last visited 10 years ago, my aunt and uncle lived in a condo toward the periphery of town, and my memory is that whenever we left, we jumped in their car. This time, they had moved to another condo closer to the city center – in centro. Zia Benedetta explained that she didn’t feel comfortable driving anymore, and this move allowed her to walk to the gym in the mornings, take her cart to the nearby grocery store, check in on her older sisters, and walk to her son’s house in the afternoon to watch her grandchildren. She hasn’t had to stop doing anything she enjoys, she just doesn’t have to drive to do it anymore. As she grows older, her son and friends are all close enough to check in on her frequently and easily help with errands. What if more of us could live like that as we age?

Certainly, it’s harder to successfully age in place in the U.S., where most of the country does not possess the culture of density that exists in most of Europe; in other words, we like our sprawl. And increasingly so: Arthur Nelson of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center points out that between 1950 and 2000, Americans living in suburbia rose from 27 percent to 52 percent.

Sidenote: out of curiosity, I compared the footprint of Trapani with my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, which has about the same population. The contrast in density is pretty stark. Here’s Trapani:

And here’s Trapani’s footprint over Kalamazoo’s, with the same population:

There you have it. Americans like their space, and reduced walkability is the price we often pay for it.

 Despite the trends of the last century, however, we can still incorporate walkability into built-out spaces, and thus preserve more of our independence as we age. As Christopher Leinberger found in his examination of walkable urban centers, “The new real estate paradigm is no longer city versus suburbia, it is walkable versus drivable.” He notes that retrofitting the suburbs is the biggest challenge of the next generation, but also cites multiple examples of suburbs with revitalized town centers such as Rockville and Silver Spring, Maryland.

Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces,

This matters for seniors who may not be in an ideal place in which to age, but are ready to make a move. And there will be lots of them: Between 2010 and 2030, the number of senior citizens is expected to double.  According to Nelson, that trend has major implications for the changing American dream. “Eighty percent of seniors own their homes, and they don’t move very often…but when they move, they make a really big move,” he says. Data shows that when they do relocate, the percentage of seniors living in apartments rises from 20 percent to almost 60 percent. These trends are encouraging, since Leinberger’s report points out that residents compensate for walkable urban centers’ higher land values by renting and occupying smaller spaces – two things that seniors appear to be doing anyway.

Many urban and suburban leaders are paying special attention to improvements in town centers with deep dividends for seniors’ quality of life – and, really, for all of us. Sidewalks that are consistently shoveled and have curb cuts to accommodate wheelchairs are also friendly to parents pushing strollers, benches at transit stops are welcomed by young and old, and traffic lights with ample time help people of all ages and ability levels to safely

bondidwhat via Flickr

cross the street. The World Health Organization recently formed the “Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities,” which boasts membership from 35 cities around the world. One of them, the uber-fast-paced New York City, now has three Aging Improvement Districts in which the city pilots amenities such as longer crossing times at intersections and stores that set up chairs both inside and out for resting and socializing.

We know how to do this. We know how to create walkable places to live, and, in the case of some of our older city neighborhoods, we know how to nourish those that have long existed. A major benefit to those who live in these walkable urban centers is that they can keep living there as they grow older and their abilities change. As Brown bluntly points out, “We’re all gonna die. And before we die, we’re likely to slide into various stages of decrepitude and neediness.” Aging could be a better experience for all of us is if we could do it in settings that allowed for our independence and interactivity with our surroundings for as long as possible.

[i] Foley DJ, Heimovitz HK, Guralnik JM, Brock DB. Driving life expectancy of persons aged 70 years and older in the United States. Am J Public Health. 2002;92(8):1284-1289.


  1. 1. Mallorca properties from on February 1, 2013

    I enjoyed reading your blog. I do agree that you will know if its a great place when the you experience how to be there and of course it depends on how good your surrounding will be. And it really makes difference if its a walkable place. Its for all ages. Nice post.

  2. 2. Patrick Roden from Vancovuer, WA USA on May 8, 2013

    Mallorca, very content rich post. I'm gald you've made the connection between built environment and health (and aging).
    Well done.
    Patrick Roden

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