The New Age of American Cities: Creating Age-Friendly Communities

The New Age of American Cities:
Creating Age-Friendly Communities

When communities are designed for young and old, then everyone in between is covered.  Communities that work for children and the elderly are “age-friendly,” livable places that work for all of us.

We’re already seeing local communities big and small implementing measures to create complete streets designed with users of all ages and abilities in mind.  These streets are typically part of an integrated transportation network that gives more choices to those who cannot or choose not to drive.  They also feature real estate development with a diversity of uses and services within easy walking range, and a host of public-private collaborations that strengthen commercial districts, neighborhood schools, parks and public spaces. These communities foster active, healthy lifestyles for people throughout all stages of their life.

Age is just a number?

“Age-friendly” approaches to community design will be increasingly important with a growing, and graying, population and other demographic shifts. These efforts are also becoming more essential as many young adults seeking to make their start are choosing to live, work and raise a family in downtowns and urban centers. At the same time, we’ve all heard about mature adults, “empty nesters,” returning to downtowns after the children have moved out. Population growth and urbanization are converging trends that can both benefit from making our cities “age-proof.”

Read more about population trends Here

From civic engagement to health services, several factors affect access and quality of life for different age groups. We will focus here on what local governments can do to make a community more livable and age-friendly.

The keys to the age-friendly city

Age-friendly cities encourage safe, healthy growth and development of young people as well as active, independent lifestyles for adults of all ages. They create and adapt the built environment (buildings, streets and sidewalks, the transportation network, community facilities and public spaces) to support mobility and housing choices, and the full spectrum of public, commercial and personal services so that the living environment is accessible for children and older adults with varying needs and abilities.

An age-friendly community also engages people of all ages in the public discourse and decision-making processes – great civic engagement has no age limit.

The World Health Organization has developed a “Checklist of Essential Features of Age-friendly Cities,” based on the results of its Global Age-Friendly Cities project that covers 33 cities in 22 countries. The checklist provides a practical tool that can help a city conduct a self-assessment of its age-friendly strengths and weaknesses and chart its progress in improving the community’s age-friendliness. The  WHO Global Age-Friendly Cities Guide also offers more detailed checklists of age-friendly features.

Drinking-FountainBy 2030, one in five adults in the United States will be 65 or older. AARP Livable Communities is helping towns and cities nationwide get ready by educating planners, policy makers and local leaders about housing, transportation and community features that benefit people of all ages and life stages. The program’s web page [here] features news, fact sheets, how-to guides, slide shows and a range of resources about creating age-friendly communities. The program leads the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities (checkout the member list here) and sponsors livability workshops across the U.S. with walkability guru Dan Burden (co-founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute and an old friend of LGC’s). You can subscribe to the free AARP Livable Communities e-newsletter by clicking here and follow them on Twitter at @LivableCmnty.

In a recent article on “12 ways to make cities more child-friendly” in Spacing Magazine and Blog Network (March 2014), residential designer Chris Bruntlett pulled together a similar, more light-hearted list of strategies for the younger set, based on highlights from his family’s vacations.

All of these principles involve overcoming barriers and maximizing opportunities for the young and old. The innovations open to local governments are almost endless, as recent efforts in New York City illustrate.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that New York City has given pedestrians more time to cross at more than 400 intersections in an effort to make streets safer for older residents. They’ve sent school buses filled with senior citizens to make runs to the grocery store, and let artists use space in senior centers in exchange for giving art lessons. It is also creating two “aging improvement districts,” parts of the city that will become safer and more accessible for older residents.

Where we live: buildings and outdoor places

The physical world we live in – public buildings and the outside environment – greatly influence the mobility, independence and quality of life of older people, and have a significant effect on their chances to “age in place.”

In terms of zoning and development, that means we need to build housing near services. Our housing stock, which should include a range of types for different households and income levels (for families with young children, downsizing empty nesters and the like), needs to be within easy walking distance and/or conveniently located on a multimodal transportation network to meet the needs of both youth and seniors – and everybody else in between, for that matter.

In most cities, mixed-use, transit-oriented development, housing above ground-floor retail and higher-density infill along major arterials and commercial corridors can be effective engines that drive age-friendly places as well as sustainable economic vitality. This kind of urban landscape also puts more “eyes on the street,” and that makes neighborhoods safer for people of all ages. And if schools, ball fields and stores are nearby, parents don’t have to drive their kids everywhere.

In terms of housing and transportation costs, affordability is a factor that affects all age groups, particularly families with children in working-poor households, the disabled and seniors on a fixed income.

Streets, sidewalks and buildings should be designed with the needs of young and old in mind, including those with disabilities of all ages. Welcoming and accessible environments for these users will guarantee inviting places for all. These measures include even pavement surfaces, curb ramps at intersections, lighting, signage and striping to make crosswalks safer, passageways wide enough for people in wheelchairs, as well as building interior features like appropriately designed barrier-free kitchens and bathrooms.

Getting around town

Wheels up! Complete and well-maintained streets are a vital component of the age-friendly city – whether they’re aimed at wheelchairs, strollers, bikes or skateboards. Local governments can “age-proof” their city streets and sidewalks by adding bike lanes, widening sidewalks, and re-striping car lanes and crosswalks.

On a complete street, kids get their freedom if they can safely wheel around the neighborhood, and seniors can walk around more securely and stay independent more often.

Traffic calming and well-placed crosswalks are key features.

Crosswalks need to be placed conveniently where people most need them (sometimes at mid-block), and designed to give sufficient time for young and old alike to get across safely. Bulbouts and crossing islands are a common tactic for narrowing the amount of asphalt a pedestrian needs to navigate, and age-friendly retrofits like these, coupled with narrowed vehicle lanes, flashing beacons, audio/visual signals and proper street striping, can help persuade drivers to slow down.

Places to sit, talk and play

Outdoor seating in parks, transit stops, public plazas, and on sidewalk furniture, spaced at regular walking intervals near residences and shops, is an essential amenity for youth and the elderly. Older people are more likely to be able to walk around their neighborhood if there is somewhere to stop and rest. People are healthier, happier and live longer when they are out and about, interacting with other people.

Eating together under the open sky, for breakfast, lunch or dinner, is another perennial social scene. Sidewalk dining is an increasingly popular – and profitable – element of many city streetscapes. Local zoning should encourage this use of public space, and local public works departments and merchant associations can team up to make the most of these “opportunity sites.”


Oakland-ParkletParklets are small urban parks, often created by transforming under-utilized parking spots with decking, planters, trees, benches, café tables with chairs – maybe even artwork or bicycle parking. They are designed to provide public places and bring awareness to the amount of space that is devoted to parking rather than to creating vibrant community spaces.

Cities around the country are turning asphalt into small, on-the-street spots of greenery and temporary seating. These reimagined, shared spaces enliven the streetscape and extend gathering places and outdoor seating for restaurants – and they are playful reminders to design cities for people, not cars.

The best parklets are more than private patios for dining establishments, however. They can be designed with a variety of uses in mind and be open to the public.

ParkletFor the past several years, the Local Government Commission has showcased intriguing and entertaining parklet experiences at the annual national New Partners for Smart Growth conferences. These indoor parklets featured an enclosed art gallery space made of recycled materials, a climbing-and-jumping mini-place for kid fun, and a giant life-size chess board (see photo).

In Sacramento, LGC helped the City adopt a parklets program by organizing a bus tour for elected officials, City staff and local businesse representatives to San Francisco, which in the past few years has seen parklets pop up all over the City. The City recently prepared a pilot program and is in the process of reviewing the first round of applications.

Playful streetlife

AlleySome cities are literally taking this age-friendly, playtime approach to the streets.

In some settings the street can be a playground with swings, slides and other playground equipment on the street.

In downtown San Luis Obispo, Bubblegum Alley is a tourist landmark where a narrow 15 x 70-foot alley lined with chewing gum left by passersby dates back to the 1960s. It has inspired professional artists such as Matthew Hoffman, who added a giant self-portrait titled “Projectbubble Gum” which is created entirely with bubble gum on the east end of the alley. (; Wikipedia)

Just add water

FountainA little water is all it takes to add life to urban landscapes. Some California cities have daylighted creeks to bring water back to life, with shaded paths and comfortable benches situated along the way. Others have added fountains and splash pads creating cool activity centers for young and old. 

Ask your grandparents

So when the opportunity presents itself, let’s ask our seniors, “How would you make a street or park for you and your grandchildren?” The answers will help provide keys to creating great places for everyone.