The lifestyle and political choices in America over the past half-century have cultivated a society in which young and old are in contention with, and in contempt of, one another. With this divergence poised to swell – by 2040, over 20 percent of America will be over the age of 65, up from just under 13 percent today – America must confront its generational inequities to evade economic instability, environmental uncertainty and drastic social cleavages.
As this demographic shift accelerates the proliferation of interconnected, complex social issues, a new generational contract might come from rethinking the relationship between local policy and design. While comprehensive federal reforms have proven difficult, community design solutions across the country have demonstrated an innovative way to connect the common needs of the elderly and youth. By entwining complementary neighbourhood policy and design that buttress adequate public health, a clean environment, decent public education and universal accessibility, America can make its generational transformation a triumph rather than a terror.
Smart growth to provide access to opportunity
Following smart growth design principles to establish schools as centres of complete communities could enable safe, equitable, and high-performing education. Richard Rothsteing, a top educational researcher, argues that, “two-thirds [of the quality of schools] is attributable to non-school factors.” Such out-of-classroom influences include housing stability, neighbourhood quality and safety, available and affordable transportation options, accessibility of after-school programmes and open space.
Pursuing joint development of neighbourhood designs between school districts and spatial planners could alleviate the stress induced by unsafe, substandard community environments. California is already testing this new strategy through an initiative that brings together the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research with the State Department of Education to encourage collaborative local development.
In compact neighbourhoods, school infrastructure can be used to support the social needs of the elderly. In NYC, the City School Department partnered with the Department of Aging to shuttle senior citizens to city museums, parks, supermarkets and other public places in school buses free of charge when the buses are not in use. Such strategies not only provide mobility opportunities for soon-to-be senior baby boomers, but they also ensure that the older population is invested in continuing to fund education infrastructure.
Ageing in place to reduce budget deficits
The benefits of smart growth design also support ageing in place. Some 78 percent of adults between the ages of 50 and 64 prefer to reside in their current residence as they age rather than move into a designated elderly home. But ageing in place requires built infrastructure, laws, policies and programmes to foster neighbourhoods where residents can live safely, autonomously and comfortably regardless of age or income. Many communities lack this necessary built and service substructure, forcing older adults to abandon their homes, friends and communities in favour of assisted living complexes.
Smart growth design provides housing with elevators, wide hallways, communal green spaces, shared facilities and goods and services within short walking or transit distances. To buttress this infrastructure, local programming aims to reduce service fragmentation and create greater comfort and security for seniors through voluntary social work, education, socialisation, nutrition and fitness programmes and legal advice.
The Queens Community House’s Neighbourhood Intergenerational Chore and Errand Programme connects youth to seniors through services and social activities, which include shopping, laundry and cooking, but also more costly needs like transportation and healthcare management. Such programming helps multigenerational neighbourhoods thrive not only as senior-friendly communities, but also as places for young families who provide the labour for neighborhood facilities.
Fighting obesity through neighbourhood design
America’s youth and its seniors face another shared challenge – obesity. About one–third of senior citizens are considered obese, the same percentage of overweight or obese children. This increase in obesity developed in parallel to the growth of an auto-centric, sprawl-oriented lifestyle. Between 1977 and 1995 Americans’ total number of walking trips – trips to work, school, and other necessities – decreased by 32 percent.
Design can strengthen public health policy aimed at reducing obesity by creating safe active transport options. Complete streets, designed to support biking and walking for all ages and the compact design of smart growth, which makes walking and biking to goods, services and social opportunities not only viable but pleasant, can provide the daily exercise needed to fight obesity and associated illnesses. The risk of cardiovascular diseases, for example, is 11 percent less for those who actively commute and students who live in walkable neighbourhoods have a 59 percent lower chance of being obese.
Several communities across the country have already enacted smart streets to fight obesity. Baldwin Park, a majority Latino-city near Los Angeles, is currently implementing one of America’s most comprehensive Complete Street policies to transform five major corridors into safe walking and biking options to combat childhood obesity.
Considerations for a changing America
As America faces the difficult challenge of accommodating shifting age demographics, it must rethink its generational contract by redesigning the spaces in which its young and old live.
Problems can no longer be analysed, or solved, in isolation, but instead should be evaluated holistically with issues from varied sectors at different scales. This necessitates a multidisciplinary team of decision makers to ensure that policies and neighborhood designs augment the benefits of one another. Policy makers, doctors, architects, police forces, urban planners, community members and financiers should work together to make the necessary investments in capital and ingenuity required to make an intergenerational design solution successful.
But beyond concrete tools, today’s challenges require a new way of thinking about social problems and infrastructure needs of an evolving population. The relationship between the design of the built environment and the social policies that govern the young and elderly’s wellbeing must be rethought to highlight the mutual returns of their connection.
The debate over the 21st Century national agenda to reinvigorate America provides the chance to change how policymakers and citizens alike think about local infrastructure projects and welfare policies – an opportunity to connect generational policy to multigenerational design.