Planning Ahead for a Growing Senior Population

AJ Fawver, the Planning Director in Amarillo, Texas shares her perspectives on land use, planning, and community development in this series. Learn more about AJ from her GovLove interview.


When we are going about the important work of planning and shaping cities, it is important to not oversimplify the group of people we serve.  After all, our population – wherever we may live – is made up of a variety of people with varying ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, needs, etc. It is not enough to plan for the sum of our parts; we also must look at each of those parts in detail from time to time, in order to plan inclusively.

A growing part of every population, for which purposeful planning is necessary, is the senior population.  As outlined in the UN World Population Prospects report, there will be more people over 65 years old than children under 15 for the first time in human history.

Think about that.  

The report also shares that the number of people over 100 will increase by 1,000%! 

Guess where almost ¾ of the worlds’ population will live?  You guessed it – in cities.  The Stanford Center for Longevity, utilizing U.S. Census Bureau data and quoted in the Washington Post, points out that 1 in 5 people by mid-century will be over 65.

What else do we know about the senior population? Well, we know that, as a whole, people are living longer.  The medical profession is discovering fascinating facts about improving mental health and memory.  

More seniors aged 65 and older are working than at any time since the turn of the century; furthermore, these older workers are spending more time on the job than did their peers in previous years, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of employment data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So, how does this affect cities?  The term “aging in place” is likely familiar to you, if you attend conferences or read up on publications targeted towards cities.  More adults prefer to age in place, at home.  

Another oft-discussed topic is a community’s “housing mix”, targeting maximum diversity in housing offerings, or “intergenerational planning”, planning in a way that is inclusive for all.  

With “adaptive housing”, the intent is to ensure that residents in all stages of life can be accommodated.  By designing flexibility into structures from the beginning, people can stay in their homes longer, even when aging or experiencing injury or illness.  

The great news is, there are many excellent resources out there to help you understand and sharpen a focus on planning your communities in a way that promotes aging in place.  Here are a few key themes to get you started.

  1. Think about quality of life and evaluate whether your city’s planning and regulations promote and invest in a higher quality of life for residents.  The beauty of this approach is that it actually benefits all residents, not just seniors.  Are streets walkable/bikeable?  Is public transportation easily accessible, clean, and convenient?   Are traffic calming measures utilized to slow traffic in pedestrian-heavy areas?  Do your streets have frequent shade trees, resting places, and public transportation stops?  These are all crucial, as evidence suggests a growing number of seniors enjoy walking and biking to get around, and that it can positively impact disabilities.
  2. Consider whether your city encourages or requires building at a density which yields walkable, mixed-use environments.  In “The Future of Retirement Communities: Walkable and Urban” New York Times writer John Wasik references a “new paradigm: the walkable, urban space”.  He goes on to point out that this can work in any community – urban, rural, city, suburb.  He also, most importantly, talks about some of the barriers to the walkable urban space; barriers which we, as community leaders, can work towards removing or lowering.  These include zoning and building codes, targeted infrastructure investments, and targeted traffic improvements, like longer pedestrian signal timing.  
  3. Partner with your community’s senior services group.  Cities like Irvine (California), Tucson (Arizona), and Minneapolis (Minnesota) have adopted strategic plans for older adults which identify priorities such as mobility, housing, and health care services.  Learn about the senior population in your community and determine what needs may be addressed via partnerships, grant funding, and inclusive city planning.
  4. Focus on integration rather than segregation.  Too often, housing targeted at the senior population is of the gated community variety, targeted around a golf course, or is relegated to a sea of cul-de-sacs, for example.  This not only necessitates driving to get to any goods or services, but is hardly inclusive.  Research policies for building in senior housing as part of traditional neighborhood development or planned unit development.  Maximize this as an infill opportunity by exploring possibilities for land banking or converting commercial structures or parking lots to fill these needs.  Think about a purposeful land use policy that brings basic neighborhood services within ¼- ½ a mile away.
  5. Don’t discount technology.  It is easy to think talk of driverless cars and smart cities is strictly intended for the millennial population.  However, that’s misleading.  In a Washington Post article, Brian Fung talks about Google’s self-driving car prototype, revealed in 2014, and their recruitment of seniors.  He, too, writes about this age group being more active, and cites statistics from Nielsen regarding technology.  The boomer generation accounts for 41% of the people buying Macs, and 40% of the wireless market.  Variety and creativity within our cities can benefit this group as much as any other.
  6. See how your community stacks up.  There are some fantastic resources to take advantage of in doing so.  One source is financial resources.  Research federal sources, for example, such as the Disabled Access Tax Credit.  Explore options for funding sources like the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for programs to enhance mobility.  Provide education for multi-family developments; New York City has an excellent guide on age-friendly residential building upgrades.  Plug your community or neighborhood into AARP’s Livability Index – this valuable resource assigns scores nationwide to cities or zip codes across seven categories: housing, neighborhood, transportation, environment, health, engagement, and opportunity.  It’s quite eye-opening.

I challenge you to take a look at how your communities are serving the growing population of those 65 and up.  Furthermore, I’d love to hear about great examples you have seen around the country, or what ideas you have to build an inclusive approach within the town or city you call home.  Happy planning, and remember – cities are for everyone!


Previously