Having grown up in a suburb, I've chosen as an adult to live only in cities and small towns. I think a lot about the differences among these land use models, the most critical of which--no surprise--is that, in the suburbs, you're dead in the water without a car. That means people either too young or too old to drive live in there only at a great cost in lost independence. And demographics are poised to maroon millions of newly elderly baby boomers in the suburbs, where they will find it increasingly difficult to live the lives they imagine for themselves. This story sums up their predicament.
Some boomers have already voted with their feet, moving into cities or to suburban town centers. Minneapolis, along with other urban areas, has seen a revival of some of its downtown neighborhoods by an influx of affluent elderly.
But for the most part, boomers, some 84 percent, say that they want to “age in place.” A 2009 MetLife Foundation study found that 62 percent of people aged 55 and over say they plan to stay in suburbia. And, many of them have no choice. The collapse in housing prices during the Great Recession and an inability to sell -- or to sell at the price they need -- has kept them trapped in their large suburban manses.
But if they can’t drive, they will find living their ideal second life, or merely maintaining independence, challenging, to say the least. Without travel options, seniors face “isolation, a reduced quality of life and possible economic hardship,” declared “Aging in Place, Stuck without Options: Fixing the Mobility Crisis Threatening the Baby Boom Generation,” a 2011 report from Transportation for America, an advocacy group.
Studies show that people over age 65 who no longer drive make 15 percent fewer trips to the doctor, 59 percent fewer trips to shop or eat out and 65 percent fewer trips to socialize. Unable to get around, to buy groceries, make medical appointments, visit the bank and so on, boomers will, like it or not, be forced to move into that nursing home.
How will these developments affect residential architects and custom builders? Wealth insulates their clients to a large degree from the negatives of aging in the suburbs, but it also frees them to live where they please. I think--and, I'll admit, hope--that the positives of city and small town living will draw increasing numbers of them to vital, walkable, transit-rich urban centers. Others share that opinion. What do you think? --B.D.S.