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It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: We assume families don’t want to live downtown, we therefore don’t design for family, and, sure enough, families don’t come, or they don’t stay.

Brent Toderian, Vox

Building Livable Cities for Our Aging Population

Kelly Wong, May 11, 2015


Cities, for the most part, are built for the young and the mobile. For the elderly, cities can be hostile environments. Walk signals don’t last long enough for them to make it through the crosswalk, pavements are uneven, and lighting is insufficient. This is an urgent problem that will need to be addressed. By 2030, two-thirds of the world will live in cities, and in developed areas, as many as one in four people will be over the age of 60. The World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Cities program sets out to counteract this very problem. Currently, 258 cities have signed up and vowed to become more “age-friendly.”

But as our population ages, what exactly can we do to improve the livability for seniors? For cities like Philadelphia, where one in seven people is over 65, the problem will have to be dealt with sooner rather than later. While the US tends to focus on Social Security and Medicare as big issues for the elderly, one of the biggest problems seniors face is the lack of affordable and accessible housing. Philadelphia has adopted zoning changes so that accessory dwelling units are easier to build. These units can allow the elderly to live in the accessory units while renting out their home for extra income, or letting their family live in their home as caregivers.

Another phenomenon occurring in cities where the elderly population is growing is NORCs, or naturally occurring retirement communities. In some neighborhoods, the senior population may have strong ties to the community and attachment to their homes. As a result, they tend to stay in place rather than move to a smaller home in a better climate, and the community will have a higher number of senior citizens. As communities like this occur more often, the neighborhoods will have to change to adapt to the needs of its residents: better transit, accessible buildings, and pedestrian-friendly streets.

The AARP recently created a livability index that may help measure a community’s suitability for seniors. The index scores neighborhoods in seven different categories on a scale from 1 to 100: housing, transportation, environment, health, engagement, opportunity, and neighborhood. It’s not perfect, but it may help cities improve in areas where they are lacking, and become more livable for their elderly residents.


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