Attention to equity in city planning and in the distribution of municipal services is booming, especially in relation to creating smart cities. The focus also is shifting toward inclusivity for a variety of underserved populations — and not just low-income residents. The aging population is one of those groups whose needs are being increasingly addressed by some of the nation's leading cities.
Part of the growing interest lies in the sheer number of people falling into the “older population” category, which the U.S. Census Bureau defines as 65 or older. According to the Census Bureau, the country is growing older overall. By 2030, about 20% of all U.S. residents will be over the age of 65, with even higher numbers coming by 2040 when the oldest millennials close in on the ranks.
Just as 2017 brought an increase in cities devising comprehensive smart city plans, so too did it bring a tide of cities drawing up new or updating existing comprehensive plans to address their aging populations. "Comprehensive plans really are the opportunity for a community to come together and connect all the dots that comprise a healthy, livable place," said Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities for AARP. Leaders can "stitch together the connections that exist between housing and how people get around, between infrastructure investments and ... whether or not there’s pedestrian infrastructure in place," she said.
A number of cities launched their comprehensive plans in 2017 based on guidance from the AARP network of age-friendly communities, which is an affiliate of the World Health Organization’s network of global age-friendly communities. Age-friendliness “basically means being more inclusive and respectful of every generation,” said Laura Poskin, project manager for Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh implemented an age-friendly strategic plan last year, as did Columbus, OH. Both of those cities made concerted efforts to include a significant number of older adults in the research and planning processes to ensure that the population’s needs would be adequately addressed. "Those and other communities have done that through an age-friendly lens," Arigoni said, noting the importance of examining issues "through the eyes of a demographic that is often overlooked and often undervalued."
"There’s an antiquated notion that a retirement community is what everybody wants. But actually .... they want to be able to age in the same communities that they raised their kids in, or maybe they grew up in themselves."
Director of Livable Communities, AARP
The leading concept behind cities’ age-friendly comprehensive plans is "aging in place." That might mean a resident chooses to remain in their home as they grow older, or they might downsize to a smaller home within that same community. "There’s an antiquated notion that a retirement community is what everybody wants. But actually .... they want to be able to age in the same communities that they raised their kids in, or maybe they grew up in themselves,” Arigoni said. In fact, AARP statistics indicate that 90% of older adults prefer to stay in their homes or communities for as long as they can.
Enabling citizens to age in place is a multi-faceted endeavor that includes “everything from thinking about home modifications to thinking about what supportive services might be available or what volunteer or social opportunities exist in your neighborhood,” said Katie White, director of Age-Friendly Columbus. It all comes back to ensuring that older adults have a way of "staying in their familiar neighborhood where they know the person who works at the post office or the grocery store or their hairdresser," she said.
One of the greatest barriers to aging in place is that cities increasingly are strapped for housing inventory, especially affordable units. That disproportionately affects aging citizens who no longer have a steady income.
Local governments and stakeholders are working to increase affordable housing in a number of ways, but “sometimes when you use the words ‘affordable housing,’ people think it’s housing for ‘poor people’” rather than for those like seniors who are on fixed incomes, Arigoni said.
Coming at it from a different angle and focusing on individuals can lead cities to different viable ideas, Arigoni said, explaining that housing options that meet older adults’ needs often “happen within the bounds of local zoning decisions.” That can lead to strategies such as offering tax credits to developers who build structures with dedicated affordable housing, or allowing accessory dwellings, which could let an aging person rent out a portion of their house or property.
“Why is our world around us not built for everyone to participate in it? ... That’s a social justice issue.”
Project Manager, Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh
Mobility is another challenge that leaders are working to improve. Aging in place is less feasible for citizens who may have limited transportation options if they stop driving. If, for instance, an older adult can't drive and doesn't live near a transit stop, they could become homebound. “Why is our world around us not built for everyone to participate in it?” Poskin said. “That’s a social justice issue.”
Large-scale strategies for improving transit access — such as adding stops and reworking routes in underserved neighborhoods — are underway in some cities. But something as simple as upgrading sidewalk quality and making busy intersections safer greatly boosts aging residents’ ability to get around. That’s why both Columbus and Pittsburgh have put those infrastructure improvements at the top of their lists of age-friendly initiatives. “If crosswalks are easier for your older neighbor, they’re going to be easier for everyone,” Poskin said. “It’s really about equality.”
The idea of making changes that improve life for seniors and the entire community touches on one of the other tenets of age-friendly communities: promoting intergenerational activities. “Segregating the different populations doesn’t do any good for anyone,” White said. “When you get [millennials and baby boomers] in the same room, you really realize that most of our interests, our challenges and our fears are quite similar.”
Columbus and Pittsburgh both have put a focus on “skills swap” events where older and younger adults are paired up and “the younger people can gain a lot from older people and vice versa,” Poskin said.
Skills swaps are one way to help older adults become more digitally savvy during a time when technology, innovations and services rapidly change and exclude those who can't keep up. Increasing a person's technological abilities helps them to access smart city resources and transportation options. “We see that ride-sharing, just as with the sharing economy more broadly ... is really a pathway to solving some of these problems that confront communities,” Arigoni said.
In Columbus, for example, some intergenerational programs bridge the knowledge gap by “pairing students who are really comfortable with technology with an older adult. Maybe they download the Uber app and take the first couple of trips together until they’re comfortable," White said.
Promoting intergenerational activities also prevents isolation and loneliness, which is another problem that plagues older adults and can be compounded by decreased mobility. “It’s so sad when we have a world that is siloed by age,” Poskin said. “We move through life in these cohorts, but why? We’re all neighbors and we all need to be able to access the community around us.”
Comprehensive plans are a good start for becoming an age-friendly community, but organizers stress that they are “living documents” and should be built upon as new needs are discovered. The tweaking process is based on using feedback and data to track and expand upon successes. "We can measure the impacts of the strategies we’re implementing [by] creating baseline data in our first year and measuring that over the next three years,” White said. Tracking the data helps cities to determine if “we are actually having the impact we want to have,” she said.
While the initiatives roll out into communities, organizers are working on ways to make the resources well known, and to show older adults that their participation in the process led to the age-friendly community improvements. "One of the pieces of feedback we received from an older gentlemen is that when you give input, you want to see change," White said. “We want to show ... how participating led to this exact change."