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As Boomers Age, Walkable Cities Become More Important

Millennials and older Americans agree on city accessibility, and the lobbying powerhouse of the AARP is emerging as a key advocate.

Toa55/Shutterstock.com

It's a charmed feature of family life that the oldest and youngest often find common cause. In league against the conservatism of parents, grandparents and grandkids might push for dessert before dinner or agree on the harmlessness of playing outside in the rain.

It seems that the two cohorts have also found themselves in a natural alliance on urban planning. Both the old and the young, according to surveys, want to live where they can walk, use transit, and enjoy public space.

Millennials may embody this lifestyle in film and on television, but the elderly are exerting their influence behind the scenes. The AARP, which counts some 37 million members over 50, has quietly mounted a campaign for a built environment less oriented toward private automobiles.

"We've really augmented our activity a lot over the last six years," says Nancy LeaMond, the AARP's executive vice president for social impact. "We've been especially struck by listening to our members. Overwhelmingly, they want to remain in their homes and in their communities for as long as possible. In order to do that, their infrastructure, their homes, and their communities need to be suitable."

Better known for its positions on issues like healthcare and social security, the AARP has lobbied for Complete Streets legislation in Honolulu and Puerto Rico, and built gardens and parks in cities in Vermont and Kansas. The organization has enrolled cities including Birmingham, Boston, and Washington, D.C., in its Network of Age-Friendly Communities, which entails commitments on issues like transportation and public space.

Macon-Bibb County, Georgia—one of the first American communities to participate in the program—is drawing up plans for a new senior center as part of a broader action plan. In Des Moines, the Age-Friendly City Advisory Committee has put forth a series of recommendations on issues like infrastructure and transit.

Hawaii has the highest older-pedestrian fatality rate in the country. The AARP successfully lobbied for the passage of Complete Streets legislation in 2012 and subsequent pilot projects in Honolulu. (AARP)

In this outreach, the AARP shares some territory with national organizations like the American Public Transportation Association and the Alliance for Biking and Walking.

The difference? The AARP is the eighth-biggest lobby in the United States. According to Opensecrets.org, the organization has spent $239 million on lobbying since 1998, more than Exxon Mobil or Lockheed Martin.

That's a big ally for transit, sidewalks, and green space, and one that has only recently started to flex its muscles. Next year, the AARP will launch an online scoring tool to rate cities and suburbs on their senior livability characteristics. "It will be richer and deeper than any similar index," LeaMond says, and will serve both to inform consumers and to pressure planners.

Planning for the elderly might seem like a tougher political sell than, say, directing that money toward tax breaks for businesses. After all, since the elderly are a relatively immobile population, they're less likely to be attracted by amenities—or chased away by a lack thereof.

But LeaMond, who has a master's in public policy and urban planning from Harvard's Kennedy School, says mayors are starting to see it as a good investment.

Nancy LeaMond (AARP)

"What we've heard from a lot of city officials is that they feel that improvements in walkability, public transportation, and parks will benefit their efforts to attract millennials [and] Gen-Xers, and to retain older citizens," she told me. Additionally, she says, the enormous size of the Boomer generation will mean more seniors moving around the country in absolute terms, even if the population remains geographically fixed relative to younger Americans.

Despite a shared interest in walking to the grocery store, millennials and seniors have different relocation strategies. Millennials move disproportionately to the walk-and-bike cities of D.C., Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland—in addition to the generally fast-growing cities of Texas.

Seniors, meanwhile, head largely to the Sun Belt cities that are least likely to meet their needs as they grow too old to drive. Recent research from Canada indicates that seniors are moving to the suburbs at a faster-growing rate than that of any other demographic.

This preference, in addition to seniors' general desire to "age in place," puts the burden on communities to adapt. Seniors aren't going to walkable neighborhoods (in part because of high housing prices), so walkable neighborhoods will have to go to seniors.

I asked LeaMond if the automobile DNA of cities like Phoenix and Tampa doomed them to fail simple tests, like whether you could walk to the grocery store. "There's not an option for it to be beyond saving," she said, of car-centric urbanism. "The population is aging. The average length of time that people [live] after they give up driving is, for men, seven years, and for women it's 10."

That's a long time to wait for the bus.

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