On aging boomers: New Urbanist model key to “longevity dividend”

I live in a community that was solid Reagan country just one generation ago, but has undergone a dramatic demographic shift. An influx of teaching professionals – university and K-12 – has transformed it into fertile territory for Democrats, which would no doubt horrify those who came before. Clearly, this is no longer my father’s suburban village.

I make this point to illustrate the change that can come to communities over time – change that can be accelerated by approaches like New Urbanism, which was celebrated in Madison last week as the Congress for the New Urbanism held its recent conference at Monona Terrace.

Not everyone is on board with New Urbanism, but I believe it can help us cope with, or get ahead of, demographic trends and ease the anxiety of communities like Milwaukee, where city fathers and mothers wonder if the elimination of its residency rule for public employees will lead to a mass exodus.

Well, not if you make your city more livable, which is what the New Urbanist model is all about.

Perhaps New Urbanism, a back-to-the-future concept if there ever was one, will make its most significant contribution by helping communities prepare for the aging of America. In case you haven’t noticed, my fellow baby boomers, our waddle is starting to show.

Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton, spelled it out in pretty stark terms during the CNU Conference, citing the desire of older people to stay at home.

Future housing trends, he said, must help manage the “inevitable process of debilitation” of tens of millions of people who figure to live longer but are just starting to retire.

Since the average life expectancy of Americans grew 30 years in the 20th century – from a mere 47 years in 1900 to 77 years in 2011 – they will be “aged” for a lot longer than previous generations. Their cribs, however, figure to be a lot different.

In a call to urban planners and residential developers alike, Cisneros, now chairman of CityView, which finances inner-city workforce housing, said accommodating seniors who want to live out their lives in their homes will require modifying the way we plan retirement neighborhoods and build homes for “age appropriateness.”

These homes will be designed for assisted living (fitting nicely with the home health care trend) with features like single floor plans, non-slip floor surfaces, the removal of barriers, etcetera.

“We need to begin thinking about the ‘life-span home,’” Cisneros stated. “An entire industry will come into existence as this occurs.”

In the New Urbanist framework, whole neighborhoods will be planned with van transportation linked to other forms of mass transit, removing senior citizens’ fears of being isolated from a transportation standpoint.

These senior neighborhoods also are likely to feature retail amenities, neighborhood centers for peer group contact, parks, walking trails, and gardens. A mixture of dwelling units and co-housing arrangements will put residential units around shared space for dining, business pursuits, and the like.

Just as the Americans with Disabilities Act provides the blueprint for home design for people with disabilities, it also can provide the blueprint for people who are frail, Cisneros noted.

“These concepts must be broadly integrated into home-building strategies,” he stated.

And not a moment too soon for the 2.8 million people who were born in the first full post-World War II year of 1946 (our parents could make both war and love, couldn’t they?) This first wave of baby boomers turns 65 this year, and more than 80 million more will follow them by 2050.

Born in 1960, I’m closer to the tail end of that boom, but hopefully an emerging societal goal known as the “compressed morbidity agenda,” which means people will remain active and vital longer, will apply to me, too.

This geriatric juggernaut obviously will place financial strains on the nation in terms of entitlement spending commitments, but is there any reason we can’t translate longer life spans into a “longevity dividend”?

For the sake of our finances, our economy, and our quality of life, I hope we give this age-focused New Urbanist model a fair hearing.

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.