Building urban and suburban infrastructure better suited to the growing number of aging Americans

Emily Badger highlights a new issue: fitting existing and future infrastructure to the rapidly growing older population in the United States.

Cities everywhere need to begin recalibrating for this moment now (a better crosswalk speed, for instance, would be closer to 3 feet per second). But this generational age bomb is also arriving at precisely the worst moment to pay for those changes that will actually cost money. And then there is the problem of imagination: How do you get urban planners, transportation engineers, and anyone running around a city in their prime to picture the places where we live through the shaded eyes of an octogenarian?..

Aging Americans, Waerstad predicts, are going to experience a lot of pain before we really have infrastructure and systems in place to accommodate them, particularly in a country where we’ve spent decades creating communities that can only be navigated by car. And then what?…

The biggest challenge, though, won’t come from neighborhoods like Harvard Square, where a couple of curb cuts and some slower crosswalks could actually make a difference. It will come from suburban communities where there are often no sidewalks at all, let alone places to go at the other end of them…

The prospect of an aging suburbia poses a challenge to the whole way we’ve been designing communities in America, not just how we lay crosswalks and print tiny-font bus schedules. Waerstad argues that the demographics of monetary power in America will play a crucial role. More than half of the discretionary income in the United States belongs to people who are older than 50. And so the same spending might that helped create suburbia will soon be clamoring to reinvent it, to create town centers that actually have stores and doctor’s offices, to turn residential neighborhoods into something more diverse, to expand transit access.

Several good points made in this article. Aging is a cultural as well as physical issue. It would be interesting to discuss further how major cities and new developments do take this American emphasis on youth and translate into design. How would a new condo building look different? How about a new streetscape? Second, critics of suburbia have pointed this out for quite a while: American suburbs require driving, which tends to disadvantage those who can’t drive. Sociologist Herbert Gans noted this way back in his early 1960s classic The Levittowners when noting that teenagers and the elderly are stuck.

I assume there are some places we could look in order to learn about how to do this better. How do other countries tackle this? What about American communities geared toward older residents – what adjustments does Del Webb make?

One thought on “Building urban and suburban infrastructure better suited to the growing number of aging Americans

  1. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs #5: cars and driving | Legally Sociable

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s