Retrofitting Suburbia for the Elderly

March 24, 2014 7:53 pm


I do understand the appeal of the suburbs — the privacy, the open space — but one thing has long seemed pretty clear: suburbs are a difficult place to grow old.

I’ve certainly seen this with my own aging relatives. Especially after one spouse dies, big houses become empty and difficult to maintain. Yards are an expensive and unused amenity. Simple trips require a car, so seniors often continue driving long after they should stop. Unfortunately, going carless can lead to almost total isolation.

On the other hand, Brooklyn, where I live now, seems like a pretty great place to grow old. I’m not sure my 69-year-old neighbor ever had a driver’s license, but mobility has never been a concern for her. She spends summer days on the beach at Coney Island, and practically everything she needs — including friends — are within a few blocks walk.

Some suburban towns, seeing the inevitable demographic trends, have started to plan for a different future:

> “Every small community has the same problem,” says Mr. Steele, age 69. “We want residents to be able to age in place, to meet their needs…here, without having to move away.”

> To that end, he indicates on the map how a new street grid could reduce traffic in the center of town and help Fayetteville become a “walking community”; how new town homes and condominiums, in an area where single-family homes have long been the norm, could give residents of all ages more housing options; and how new greenways and parks could promote social interaction.

> “Lenders, landowners, developers—they’re all talking now,” Mr. Steele says of the project. “We really can’t afford to wait.”

In the past, this is a problem that old-age homes and their various permutations — active-living communities, assisted-living facilities, etc. — were designed to solve. But, for understandable reasons, people don’t want to leave their homes, and they certainly prefer to maintain the social ties and amenities that they spent their entire adult lives cultivating.

> Perhaps a better solution, and one finding favor in more circles, is the idea of “retrofitting” suburbia and developing, as seen on the drawing board in Fayetteville, “lifelong communities.” Such projects typically involve taking a neighborhood or site within an existing town or suburb and creating a compact, walkable community—one with alternatives to single-family homes, such as condominiums or row houses. Ideally, older residents in large homes will have the option of downsizing and remaining in a community where they can access restaurants, shopping and other amenities and services on foot.

> As simple or as practical as that idea might sound, reshaping suburbia requires elected officials like Mr. Steele, as well as planners, developers, architects and builders, to address a host of issues. They can be as large as transportation networks and zoning codes, and as small as the type of cooktop installed in a condominium’s new kitchen, one that has to be safe for people ages nine through 90.

One of the most intriguing examples of this sort of retrofitting is taking place in Colorado, where an abandoned indoor shopping mall has been converted into a dense mixed-use neighborhood.

> “The change is pretty dramatic,” says Mike Rock, retired city manager of Lakewood who helped direct Belmar’s development. “Buildings are pulled right up to the sidewalk; residential living is above the retail outlets. You don’t expect to see this in a suburban setting.”

> Shoppers, office workers and residents fill the development’s public plaza, park and mix of nearly 800 apartments, lofts, row homes and condominiums. (The total is expected to reach about 1,300 in 2012.) In spring and summer, a street market features fare from local farmers and gourmet shops; in winter, the community’s one-acre plaza becomes an ice-skating rink.

> Mr. Rock, 61 years old, settled in Belmar when the development opened. For him and many others, he says, the draws are convenience and diversity.

> “Many weekends, my wife and I don’t use the car,” he says. Movies, an athletic club, a coffee house and restaurants are all within walking distance. “I regularly see people who are 10 years older than me—and 30 years younger,” he adds. “I like that. I like the vibrancy.”

This sounds very much like, well, Brooklyn, and indeed it is an appealing arrangement: not dense enough to bring the inconveniences that attend city life, but potentially much more resource-efficient and socially integrated than single-family homes sitting on an acre of lawn. The green benefits of this arrangement may not be the main point, but they are nevertheless very real.

Such transformations aren’t easy. For starters, they’re expensive. Beyond that, they require a holistic approach that inevitably encounters resistance from some of the many stakeholders involved. But the alternatives are probably costlier, and more communities will undoubtedly start to draw inspiration from the experiments now taking place.