According to CNBC, many smaller US cities that have attracted large numbers of millennials have also become magnets for older adults. This certainly appears to be true for our own local city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as well as the neighboring town of Lititz. In both cases, new age-qualified apartments and condos have come on the market in the past few years with additional offerings being contemplated or already underway. Our team is excited about this trend which provides a myriad of opportunities to help people of all ages, and especially older people, remain engaged and actively involved in the evolution of our cities and towns.
Every year, Forbes rolls out its “25 Best Places to Retire” which highlights places its editors have determined offer the best value. The Forbes team considers everything from housing costs, taxes, access to medical care and crime rates, to quality of life issues such as opportunities for volunteering and exercise—including walkability. The list often reflects a preference for college towns which is echoed in research by Realtor.com.
“The influx of the older and wiser is particularly pronounced in the most walkable cities and lots of college towns, according to Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for realtor.com®. These areas tend to be full of condos as well as restaurants, shops, and cultural venues such as museums and theaters. They’re packed with cool places, cool things to see, cool people. And scarcely a shuffleboard court to be found.”
By providing easy access to galleries, book stores, libraries, community centers and other amenities, downtown living allows people of any age to remain an integral part of the community fabric. Both young and old can reap the benefits of multiple generations interacting through school sports, after school programs, performing and visual arts. One town outside of Boston combined its senior center and high school to the benefit of both groups. Although there are no formalized programs, high school students have helped serve lunch at the senior center and veterans have shared their experiences with students. The school provides free tickets to performing arts events, and the senior center dance team has performed at the high school talent show.
It’s not just shared spaces like this example that provide these types of opportunities. Cross-generational interactions and shared learning can naturally occur in walkable downtowns through mentorship programs, civic organizations and artisan studios.
Age Friendly Cities
According to the U.S. Census Bureau 28% of people aged 65 and older, lived alone at the time of the census. This reality, along with decreasing mobility, contributes to the isolation that can often accompany aging. Moving downtown where there are more services nearby and more opportunities to interact with others can help people remain engaged. However, city life can end up being just as isolating as suburban settings if cities have not adapted structures, such as sidewalks and crosswalks, and services such as public transportation, to be accessible to and inclusive of older people with varying needs and capacities.
The AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities has affiliated with the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Program, an international effort launched in 2006 to help cities prepare for rapid population aging and the parallel trend of urbanization.
Many cities and towns have a number of abandoned factories, warehouses and even shopping centers that can be converted to multifamily adaptive reuse projects. One of the benefits with these projects is that much of the needed infrastructure such as water, sewer and parking, is already in place. Many of these projects – some of which are age-restricted while others allow for intergenerational living – offer upscale accommodations which in turn help to stimulate further development of amenities and services which can ultimately help solve “food desert” issues. In our local city, we are fortunate to have a vibrant farmer’s market, open year-round three days a week, that connects people of all ages to the weekly pilgrimages of local farmers bringing their produce, baked goods and other wares into the city.
These adapted structures connect residents to the past (they may even have childhood memories of its original use), as well as the future through contemporary interior design, new structural and mechanical building technologies, and interpersonal connections for the next generation of community leaders.
Inside the Dwellings: Urban Industrial Design
Urban industrial style is not limited to city dwellings, but especially for repurposed warehouses or factory buildings, it’s the obvious choice. Brick walls, aged wood floors, oversized windows, exposed beams and mechanical equipment are the signature features for this style. Sophisticated finishes and high end fixtures create a polished look that complements the patina of the often unfinished original surfaces.
The other important aspect to consider is maximizing every square foot of living space in these often modestly-sized dwellings. Retailers have also noticed the urban housing trend and have responded with space-saving, movable furnishings and storage solutions. Many pieces are made to be multi-functional, such as a coffee table that can also serve as a desk and storage piece.
While downtown living is not for everyone; there is definitely a renaissance taking place in many cities and towns around the country. This may be because downtowns provide the right setting for the “third places” highlighted by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place . As he puts it, third places—main streets, pubs, cafés, coffeehouses, post offices, barber shops and other similar venues–are the heart of a community’s social vitality. These spaces provide a setting for grassroots politics, create habits of public association, and offer psychological support to individuals and communities.
As more people choose homes in walkable cities and towns, it just makes sense for seniors to be included in this trend—for lifestyle convenience, connection to the arts and to remind younger generations of the community’s past while being an active part of a community’s future!
Matt Barley is a commercial interior designer with an aptitude for design and construction details and an understanding of universal design strategies. As an artist and craftsman in his spare time, he particularly appreciates walkable downtowns that provide a vibrant setting for galleries, restaurants, and shops. Matt is also a board member with the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County.
Blog Editor/Co-Author – Jodi Kreider, LEED AP
Beyond opportunities for continued engagement, research indicates that walkable, mixed-use environments can help to reduce disabilities many face as they age.
Some more interior design ideas for downtown living can be found at Style Motivation.
The World Health Organization’s Global Age-Friendly Cities Guide is available through the AARP