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Aging in Place: A New Plan for the Suburbs?

Could Older Common Interest Developments become part of More Livable, Less Car-Dependent Communities?

Can we save older common interest developments? Does their eventual obsolescence give us an opportunity to turn them into something else? Perhaps a new form of housing that will be absolutely necessary in the years to come? These questions and many like them have been asked on these pages for years. We have predicted the end of common interest developments as we know them.1 We have outlined the reasons why this form of housing most likely has a finite life.2 New Towns and other urban-style developments as successors to existing, low density, car-dependant projects on the outskirts of cities.3 Discussions about the end of the move to suburbia.4 But now comes another idea, something so fresh, yet so immediately understandable, that it makes you wonder why it hasn't surfaced before.

Suburbs result from a desire to avoid the density, crime, and expense of the inner city. For the last 50 years developers have sold families on suburban living as an escape to a safer, cleaner, and less congested place to live. Single family homes, and later, condominiums, outside of the city, appealed to young families who made their escape from the city to these new developments. Enormous numbers of baby-boomers embraced the concept and populated the new suburbs which in turn gave rise to other new suburbs a little further from the city, and then others, even further, and so on. Of course, the jobs remained in the cities, which turned us into a nation of commuters. Some rapid transit took up the slack, eventually, but for the most part the flight to the suburbs cemented our dependence on automobiles.

Now, 50 years later, that dependence is complete. In most suburban towns and cities no service, no product, no appointment can be had from home without an automobile trip. There is no walking to the corner grocery for a can of coffee or something for dinner. Doctors are at least a few minutes if not a longer drive in the car away. Jobs, for the most part remain in the city, but with the growth and extension of the suburbs, the commute is now one or two hours in many cases. We grew the suburbs and sold our souls for automobiles.

All of this has crept up on us over the years. In the beginning, and even now, people didn't think twice about hopping in the car to run an errand, take the kids to school or soccer, or shop for clothes or groceries. It was, and still is second nature. All of this works reasonably well during one's working years. But eventually obtaining necessary services becomes more difficult especially when we become too old to drive as much as we used to, or at all.

When that happens, you can no longer live alone in the suburbs. If you can't drive, and if there is no one at home who can, you are cut off from all the necessities of life. There might be a senior shuttle available in some places, but most suburbs are not built for senior citizens. Stay in the family home? If you can't drive, that option becomes impossible even if the home is paid for and you want to stay. And what about the loss of familiar surroundings, neighbors, services, professional help that you knew and loved for decades? All of that is gone if re-location is required.

But the loss works both ways. Suburban communities that lose their senior population also lose many of the valuable attributes of having seniors stick around. There are economic reasons of course, and although they tend to spend less, seniors are usually economically more self-sufficient and are impacted less by changes in the national economy, so their contribution to the local economy is constant. There are other benefits to having a broad cross-section of society in a single community—volunteers, teachers, coaches, consultants come often from the group of retired citizens in a city or town. When we lose this segment of our population in a community, the entire community loses a valuable asset.

There is a new trend to combat this problem called "Aging in place." It is based on the idea that people should be able to live their entire lives in one location if they choose to, and several suburban communities have embraced this idea and are doing something about it. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, writer Glen Ruffenach surveys the remodeling of the suburbs that some communities have undertaken to make communities more livable to all ages by reducing the dependence on cars.

Ruffenach states: “Retrofitting typically involves creating a compact, walkable community.” This is accomplished, he writes, not by removing blocks of single family homes, but rather “by inserting more choices for people, especially more urban choices.” He cites several cities which have begun to remodel themselves with a more urban footprint. He cites a Colorado city which turned an underperforming shopping mall into a mixed-use development with homes and offices over stores and shops. This idea has been considered in many other towns across the United States. The central theme is to remove the dependence on automobiles. Having homes within walking distance of products and services all within the same suburban envelope that used to provide only single-family lots or attached housing that was still car dependent.

This desire to allow residents to “age in place” suggests that many suburban communities could improve livability for seniors and community demographics in general by encouraging mixed use developments within walking distance to shopping and services. It also suggests that existing common interest developments could play an increasingly important role in preserving the age diversity of a community if the projects themselves can survive economically. It may be in a city's best interest to assist in that preservation, perhaps in return for some minimum allocation of units to senior housing. And what about those common interest developments that have reached the end of their service lives as privately-owned communities? Many of these older projects may be so well located near services that a city should consider a re-development project to create additional mixed use and senior housing in that location.

Remodeling existing suburbs to create more livable, less car-dependent cultures would benefit not only seniors but also adults and children of all ages. Aging condominium projects could provide the necessary raw material for such changes. Every suburban, car-centered city should take inventory of possible locations for re-development and encourage higher density, mixed-use projects which will not only allow the residents to stay put and “age in place” but also improve the quality of life for residents of all ages. Existing condominium communities may just provide the necessary re-development opportunities.

  1. Berding, “The Uncertain Future of Common Interest Developments” 1999, 2005
  2. Berding, “When Condominiums become Obsolete” 2008
  3. Berding, “Private New Towns” 2008
  4. Berding, “Back to Our Housing Future” 2008
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